Goldfingered

John `Goldfinger' Palmer wants to make it absolutely clear that he did not melt down the gold from the Brinks-Mat job (he's got an acquittal to prove it). And no, he's not mates with `Kenneth bloody Noye'. And yes, he is absolutely innocent of the pounds 20 million timeshare fraud charge that will take him (on his private jet, naturally) from his luxury home in Teneriffe to the Old Bailey. So why, he wants to know, does the old Bill persist in picking on him? Goldfingered: the John Palmer story

`Why should I worry, Elizabeth? I won't be sent down. I'll take as long as it takes to prove that I'm totally innocent. There's not one thing I'm worried about. Only a guilty person is worried." The stocky figure with the grey cropped hair and the familiar manner is John "Goldfinger" Palmer, a multi-millionaire timeshare tycoon in Tenerife's Playa de las Americas. The nickname dates from the 1980s when he was acquitted at the Old Bailey of melting down gold bullion stolen from the Brinks-Mat security company near Heathrow in 1983.

It was Britain's biggest raid, the heist of the century. In a pre-dawn swoop, six masked men flung petrol at the security guards and threatened to burn them alive if they moved a muscle. The gang then made off with gold, platinum and diamonds worth pounds 25m.

In a few months' time, Palmer will return to the Old Bailey, this time to face conspiracy charges involving an alleged pounds 20m timeshare fraud: he flew to Britain in his private jet back in April 1997 and gave himself up after a tip-off that officers from Scotland Yard were about to arrest him. But today he welcomes me into his vast, marble-floored office in Playa de las Americas.

Having sacked his lawyers in order to defend himself, he has agreed to a rare interview, to talk about his belief that he is a victim of a police conspiracy. First, however, a confusing exchange, while he fidgets with an elastic band. Why are you here, Elizabeth? What do you want from this interview? I don't like talking to the press. I don't want this taped. It's just a briefing. I'll tape it then give you the tape. You just take notes.

I ask him about the forthcoming trial. "I don't have anything to do with the timeshare sales, really," continues the 49-year-old, who is on pounds 1m bail, his gaze wandering to the far distance. "I'm charged with defrauding and conspiracy to defraud some pounds 25m - a nonsense figure. It has its beginnings in the Brinks-Mat affair..."

Palmer never denied melting down Brinks-Mat gold in a smelter on his Bristol country estate, but he convinced the jury that he didn't know it was stolen. As he left the courtroom he blew them a kiss, and returned to Tenerife.

Police and Lloyd's Insurance then spent years dogging those involved in the robbery, trying to recoup the proceeds of the haul, and Palmer admits paying pounds 360,000 to Lloyd's in settlement of a civil action. In his flat Brummy tones he launches into tidal waves of detail, repetition and vehement persuasion. I must have looked perplexed.

"I'm trying to put into your head, Elizabeth, why I'm being persecuted. They tried to get me for money laundering and failed. They couldn't get into the Spanish accounts. They spent seven months in the Isle of Man. Nothing." That's why, he says, they're trying to nail him for timeshare fraud.

"I made millions in timeshare. There's a few silly complaints about timeshares that were to be resold by four companies. So they said, let's slap that on him. They said I'd defrauded people who wanted to resell timeshares. But I was hardly here. I was only in Tenerife four days a month 'cos I was helicopter training."

Helicopter training? After studious consultation with Ramon, his Spanish lawyer, who is sitting beside him, Palmer elaborates: the fraud charges refer to the period 1991 to 1995. "That was the time I was not involved. I was burnt out, in semi-retirement, and took up a lifetime's ambition of flying big commercial helicopters. I qualified to pilot three types of helicopters." He's clearly proud of this.

Under the alleged "buy-sell" scam, existing timeshare owners were persuaded to hand over large sums of cash towards new timeshares on the understanding that their original timeshare would then be sold - a promise which was broken, leaving victims with an unwanted, overvalued property.

"They ran a silly system," Palmer explains, "talked you into buying a new timeshare then referred you to a resale company to sell the one you had. Everyone took their cut. Police have charged these resale companies with fraud. I never knew any of them. I can't give you their names. No one made a single complaint to the police."

But what about the complaints to the press by people saying that they'd lost money? "What reports?" I pass across the table a sheaf of newspaper clippings. "Well, we can draw up the files and see. Of course, you'll get complaints from among 100,000 people." How many complaints? "I don't know, I can't tell you. You get complaints for all sorts of things, something isn't done right, anything. We didn't have that many complaints in 15 years, did we, Ramon, maybe a hundred or so? Not a big deal."

What about the reports of people being frogmarched to the bank? "Bring me one.

Rubbish. Maybe there was one client who got drunk and got into a fight with a security guard. You know Spain, do you think anyone can march anyone to a bank without them complaining to the police? I don't walk around threatening anyone. I'm no angel, but I'm no gangster. I've become a silly gangster legend." Why? "I don't know why, Elizabeth." A tone of exasperation: "They blame me for everything."

We talk about his mate Kenneth Noye, extradited from Spain in May to face murder charges in the M25 road-rage case, who was remanded in custody in London yesterday. Another impatient gesture, then a verbal blizzard: "Kenneth bloody Noye! A drink or two at a boxing match. I've met him once or twice. I never knew him. I don't want to know him. If I'd been harbouring him, why didn't they come and get him? Would you hide out in Tenerife?" I don't know, John. "It's a tourist resort, there are easier places to hide. I don't know Kenneth Noye."

"The real story is the total police corruption and using millions of pounds of public funds - for what, Elizabeth? Chartered accountants say I've lost pounds 10m." You must have quite a fortune then. "I don't know how much money I've got. I'm not that kind of guy." The Sunday Times says it's pounds 300m, making you the 66th richest person in Britain. "Yeah, well, you ask them how they calculated it." But you must have some idea. "Of course I'm wealthy. I've made a very successful business. I've worked very hard."

Palmer, who was born in Birmingham, left school at 14 and did "bits and pieces. I didn't really have a job." He sold paraffin house-to-house, dealt in scrap metal, second-hand cars, then jewellery and gold - hence the smelter in his garden. He settled in Tenerife in 1985, where he built up his timeshare empire - and his taste for jets and helicopters.

Do your accusers think that because you've made such a fortune it must be dodgy? "They do, Elizabeth, they do." Why did you sack your lawyers? "Oh, I don't want to say much about that, they were friends, I'm disappointed. I've spent pounds 300,000 on lawyers and they weren't putting a case together. I've got 10 people working downstairs to put the real, true, innocent story."

"I've been to London 15 times," he adds, "to defend myself at pre-trial hearings at the Old Bailey. This case is costing pounds 50m or pounds 60m. They never expected that I would defend myself. It's a rubbish, rubbish, rubbish case." I half-turn to look round. "Don't look round my office. I don't like people to look round my office." Why not? "I like them to concentrate." With that, he gets up to make a telephone call, or to go the loo. "Don't let her look round, Ramon."

When he returns I ask for promotional leaflets for Island Village, his vast timeshare complex that sprawls up the hillside around us. "We don't work like that, Elizabeth. In the early days people were dragged off the streets and given an earbashing. But we stopped all that crap, pressuring people, years ago when I took control in 1997."

How many complexes do you have now?

"Quite a few - 10 or 11, not all timeshare, some hotels. I'm more into leisure activities now, bowling allies, restaurants... timeshare is a damn hard business."

I spot a copy of Classic Cars magazine. You like classic cars? "Yes, I collect them." How many have you got? "Lots, don't ask." Where do you live? "I sometimes stay on the boat." The boat? "Yes, I've got a little boat, a boat. Don't ask me about the boat. Sometimes I stay with Ramon. Mostly in Village Heights up the hill. I've got an apartment there."

He also has his country pile near Bristol. Do you miss England? "I miss England. I don't want to go into my personal life. I want you to help me bring this police corruption to task. I'm going to win. Then I'm going to sue every police officer that was involved."

The interview is over, but Palmer refuses to give me the tape recording. But you promised, I complain. "Well, I didn't say I wouldn't give it to you tomorrow," he replies. "You've done my head in. I'll be more fresher tomorrow. We'll have a little snack together."

Next morning I am shown into a side office, away from the marble fountain, the aquarium of tropical fish, the collection of carriage clocks. "I've been having a think, Elizabeth," he begins. "You don't want the real story - you just want all this stuff about how many cars I've got, what a gangster I am." Did the word "gangster" pass my lips? "Oh, I don't mean you personally..."

Can I tape this? No. I ask again for advertising material. He becomes impatient. "We don't do advertising. I don't have any publicity." This time there is no mention of files, no snack.

He returns to his theme. "The police have a vendetta against me. I shall enjoy tearing them apart bit by bit."

I rise to leave. I think that's about as far as we can go, John. Once again, the half-hearted hand-press, the sidelong glance. "You're a very nice person, Elizabeth, but I tell you something. You never once look me in the eye."

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