Man accused of Beckham kidnap plot sues 'News of the World'

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The Independent Online

A man accused of being part of a gang which targeted Victoria Beckham in a £5m kidnapping plot has begun a libel action against the newspaper which first published the allegations.

A man accused of being part of a gang which targeted Victoria Beckham in a £5m kidnapping plot has begun a libel action against the newspaper which first published the allegations.

Alin Turcu, a Romanian, whose real name is Bogdan Maris, is suing the News of the World over a front-page splash in November 2002, which alleged that he was a member of an international criminal gang that plotted to kidnap the former Spice Girl. The newspaper alleged that the gang intended to kill Mrs Beckham if her husband, David, failed to pay a £5m ransom.

Mr Turcu, who arrived in the UK in 1999, is also taking legal action over a follow-up article in The Sun. He was identified in both reports by photographs accompanied by his pseudonym.

The 24-year-old, who was arrested and held on remand for eight months, returned to Romania after the case against him collapsed and will not attend the libel trial.

News Group Newspapers, which publishes both newspapers, denied libel and said the articles were true, or substantially so.

John Kelsey-Fry QC, for the newspaper group, said there was little to differentiate the two sides' arguments.

He said the key differences were that Mr Turcu claimed the articles meant the kidnap was imminent and he was prepared to kill Mrs Beckham if her husband did not pay up.

The newspaper's case is that Mr Turcu, who lived in Morden, south London, at the time, was a member of a five-man gang involved in drug-dealing, burglary, theft and possession of firearms.

The Beckham kidnap plan is alleged to have arisen after the collapse of a separate plot to kidnap a Saudi Arabian prince living in London.

Mr Kelsey-Fry said Mr Turcu had been present at three of nine covertly recorded meetings at which the plot to seize Mrs Beckham was discussed.

David Price, who is representing Mr Turcu on a no-win, no-fee basis, said in court papers that there was no evidence that Mr Turcu had any involvement with the kidnap plan or any other criminal action with the alleged gang.

The most that could be said about Mr Turcu was that he "kept bad company and engaged in tasteless conversation in bars instigated by a News of the World informant".

On 3 November 2002, the News of the World splashed on the story under the headline, "Posh kidnap: we stop £5m ransom gang", claiming Mr Turcu was the "surveillance expert".

The article followed an undercover operation by the newspaper's investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood, based on information provided by Florim Gashi, a parking attendant from Kosovo, who was paid £10,000 as part of a deal arranged by Mr Mahmood.

Although the News of the World usually takes great pains to keep Mr Mahmood's identity a secret, he is expected to take the witness stand.

On the eve of publication, the newspaper passed a dossier of evidence, including taped conversations, to the police.

A police operation based on information that the gang was about to kidnap a prominent person and was also planning a payroll robbery at the auctioneers Sotheby's, led to the arrest of five men including Mr Turcu. Mr Turcu spent nearly eight months on remand at Feltham young offenders institution. He pleaded not guilty to the allegations against him, which were later dropped.

The trial of the five men collapsed in June 2003, when the Crown Prosecution Service described Mr Gashi, who had previous convictions for dishonesty, as an "unreliable witness".

The Press Complaints Commission subsequently cleared the newspaper of breaching the editors' code of conduct by paying Mr Gashi.

The hearing was adjourned until today when the judge will view undercover footage obtained by the defence.