Joe Flynn is the King of the Sting, a legendary con man who takes a professional pride in his work. This week he was sentenced to two years in prison, but he's out already and making a lot of people nervous. Andrew Lycett reports
There was one story about Joe Flynn, the ace confidence trickster sentenced to two years' imprisonment this week for deception, that used to make him very sore. Whenever he pulled off one of his carefully conceived "stings", British newspapers went to their cuttings libraries and turned up details of his most lucrative scam - the time in 1976 when he relieved the Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch of $56,000. Murdoch paid up for a pair of two-toned shoes that Flynn had claimed were worn by the controversial US Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa when he was murdered. In fact, Flynn had bought them for $3.50 in a Las Vegas pawnshop.

As far as the 61-year-old Flynn was concerned, the Murdoch heist was simply too easy. A con man likes, at some stage in his career, to be recognised for his finesse. He preferred to talk up more recent operations, which showed him in the light he preferred - as a consummate professional, picking, researching and outwitting greedy and stupid victims.

Until his arrest in the South of France in 1993, his technique was simple but effective. Flynn, whose real name is Barry Gray, would scan the British newspapers - the Daily Telegraph and Independent on Sunday were his favourites - for stories of business disputes, particularly contested takeovers. Then, telephoning from "somewhere in Europe", he would tell one of the squabbling parties that he had information that might interest them (he always primed them with just enough detail from his meticulous newspaper research). If they cared to meet him, usually at Schipol airport in Amsterdam, he would tell them more. No, he wasn't interested in being paid; he would be quite happy with a few hundred pounds for his expenses. Then he would go to the other party in the dispute and tell them the same story. "Not bad for a day's work," Flynn would say.

Guinness was conned into thinking that its business rival Argyll had bugged its boardroom, and vice versa. The Hanson Group handed over money to learn more of a non-existent undercover operation by ICI. Flynn obtained pounds 600 from the managing director of Peter De Savary's holding company for a cock-and-bull story that he had been hired by rival Manpower to dig up the dirt on the British entrepreneur's controversial deal with Blue Arrow. And there were many others.

Flynn enjoyed showing up media gullibility as much as corporate paranoia. The persuasive con man could usually make extra money selling the story of some latest exploit to the media. Sometimes his cheek was breathtaking. In January 1990, Jeff Randall, then the Sunday Times City editor, was lured to Madrid to hear "private investigator" Barry Gray's claims that he had been hired by the Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond to bug his rival Robert Holmes a Court. Not only did Flynn use his real name, but his photograph appeared in the paper.

The con man had a useful sideline, immersing himself in the details of political intrigues and conspiracy theories. In the early Eighties he could always earn a crust tipping off Middle Eastern embassies about non-existent terrorist arms caches. In September 1981, posing as Edward (shades of "the Magic") Christian, an Athens-based arms dealer, he tricked nearly pounds 3,000 out of the News of the World with his story that the Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi was "masterminding a secret plot to arm black revolutionary murder squads in Britain". In February 1983, he hoodwinked a leading firm of London solicitors that he had information about the death of the Italian banker Roberto Calvi. As recently as November 1991, Matthew Evans, chairman of the publishers Faber & Faber, took the Schipol route after Flynn had convinced him and the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that he had evidence of Robert Maxwell's involvement in arms deals and espionage.

The police were seldom interested in Flynn's heists, largely because his victims were loath to come forward and reveal their gullibility. But by the early Nineties he became an unlikely victim of the recession. Newspapers no longer provided the source material on contested takeovers. Who was interested when Flynn tried his tricks on bidders for the privatisation of the Tees and Hartlepool Ports Authority?

Looking for new "markets" in March 1992, he alighted on Paul Meyer, director of the National Hospital Development Fund, a charity that had been swindled out of pounds 2.7m by the bogus aristocrat "Lady" Rosemary Aberdour. Flynn told Meyer that, contrary to her testimony in court, Aberdour had stashed money away in secret off-shore bank accounts. Meyer travelled to Antwerp and handed over 700 Swiss francs, hoping for more information. Realising he had been duped, Meyer went to the police, who showed him a file picture of Flynn. Brendan Finucane, the barrister who prosecuted Aberdour and found swindling a charity particularly loathsome, had the satisfaction of leading against Flynn in this week's case.

Much of Flynn's success came from his plausibility. He was always immaculately turned out in blazer and tie, carrying a briefcase full of what seemed to be relevant documentation. He credits his mother, who worked in the music hall as a wardrobe mistress, for "teaching me well. I study my targets, I find out what makes them tick. She stressed the importance of dressing well and making a good impression."

Born in London, he went as a young man to Australia, where, in 1958, he served his first prison sentence (five months) for "long-firming" - filling a shop in Adelaide with photographic equipment, taking orders, and then disappearing before the goods were paid for. Later, he developed substantial holdings in property and hotels, claiming that money for their expansion came from Mike Hand, the American boss of the notorious CIA- linked Nugan Hand Bank, which financed heroin trafficking in the Far East. While flying around the Pacific selling property, Flynn says he occasionally also ran errands for Hand, such as dropping radio equipment for use by anti-Communist rebels in Indonesia.

In 1975, his business empire collapsed in the worldwide property crash. He had to flee Australia using the alias Joe Flynn, which stuck. Believing that the CIA had pulled the rug from him, he nursed a grievance against the intelligence agency - leading to one of his most celebrated stings, when he claimed to have information about Nicholas Shadrin, a Soviet defector who disappeared while on an assignment for the CIA in Vienna in 1975. Taking the name, he swears, from a packet of Benson & Hedges cigarettes, he called himself Benson in dealings with Richard Copaken, a top Washington lawyer who worked for Shadrin's wife, Eva. By amazing coincidence, Benson was the codename of the man who had debriefed Shadrin when he fled Russia in 1959. The CIA, FBI and Mrs Shadrin were convinced by Flynn's story and parted with more than $3,500 for bogus leads.

As a result of this dishonesty, Flynn served 18 months in Brixton jail. At his trial in March 1979, Judge Andrew Phelan told him: "You have preyed most callously upon the desolation of that desperate woman." Flynn refused to admit this, saying disingenuously that he never duped her personally. This refusal to accept reality resulted from a deeper self-deception. He liked to suggest that he never relieved his victims of money dishonestly. He simply asked them to contribute to his expenses. But in cheating a charity, Flynn showed that he was no Magic Christian with some society- snooking agenda but an unscrupulous con man forever looking for his next sting.