The Brink's-Mat robbery in November 1983 was described at the time as "the crime of the century". In an inside job, six men broke into the US security company's warehouse at Heathrow thinking they were about to steal £3m in cash. Instead they found themselves looking at three tonnes of gold bullion, and got away with £26m worth of gold, diamonds and cash (roughly £75m in today's money).
Little of the gold was ever recovered – according to one theory much of it ended up as dental fillings and crowns – but over the years, in what became known as the "Brink's-Mat curse", many of those involved, at least eight men, were murdered. It is thought that John Palmer, who was shot dead in his secluded Essex house, may be the latest victim.
Born in Birmingham, Palmer was one of seven children and left school at 15 – he was reportedly dyslexic – to work as a paraffin salesman before establishing a scrap metal business then moving into bullion-dealing and jewellery. Not long after the Brink's-Mat job a couple in Bath reported to police that they had seen a crucible operating in a hut in the garden of Palmer's Georgian house. The police visited but said it was just outside their jurisdiction, and nothing was done for more than a year.
Palmer was eventually pursued to Spain, one of 20 the police wanted to talk to. The lack of an extradition treaty meant that he was safe, but shortly before a treaty was signed he fled to Brazil. With an expired passport he failed to tread the Ronnie Biggs path by setting himself up out of the reach of British justice, and he was turned away, eventually standing trial.
In 1987 he was acquitted of handling and laundering charges, convincing the jury that though he admitted melting down gold bars, he had no idea that they had been stolen. He blew kisses to the jury from the dock, and from then on went by the nickname of "Goldfinger".
He was unable to put the affair behind him, however. In 1993 Brink's-Mat won an asset-freezing injunction that allowed his finances to be scrutinised, and he was forced to pay a large sum to loss-adjusters acting for the security firm. By then he was attracting further unwanted attention thanks to a Tenerife timeshare operation that netted him millions but left as many as 20,000 victims out of pocket.
That year, The Independent went out to the Spanish island and spoke to some of Palmer's dissatisfied customers, many elderly, who had been bilked in a variety of ways. One couple, both pensioners, talked about their problems but refused to give their names, saying, "The heavies watch your every move."
Intelligence from Spanish police linked him to swindles, protection rackets, extortion, death threats, violent attacks, as well as money laundering and dealing with the Russian mafia. There were countless violent incidents on the streets of Tenerife blamed on his associates, and Palmer himself often wore body armour. In a turf war between rival timeshare operators cars were set on fire and properties attacked, and there stabbings and at least one murder.
In fact timeshare fraud formed only part of Palmer's criminal empire. In 1994 the BBC's Cook Report taped him offering to launder £60m for an investigator posing as a drugs baron. "I'm not cheap but I'm good," he said as he demanded a 25 per cent commission.
Justice eventually caught up with Palmer, who was thought to have amassed a fortune of at least £300m from assorted criminal activities, funding a lifestyle adorned by a £6m yacht, Bravo Goose, and a £2.5m executive Lear jet.In one of the longest fraud trials in British legal history the court heard that slick salesmen presented victims with bewilderingly complex paperwork, and he was described as heading "a confusing network of companies which pretended to be independent of each other."
Palmer defended himself after sacking his defence team, telling the court that he was so rich he had no need of a "Mickey Mouse con"; in May 2001 he was convicted of masterminding the largest timeshare fraud on record. He was given an eight-year sentence but served only four years of it, reportedly directing his affairs from prison. At the time of his conviction he was joint 105th on the Sunday Times Rich List – a position he shared with the Queen.
After the trial it emerged that police suspected Palmer of helping Kenneth Noye, who had recruited him to help smelt the Brink's-Mat gold, flee to Tenerife after the road-rage murder of Stephen Cameron in 1996. In 1985 Noye was acquitted of murdering a policeman he had discovered in his garden during the Brink's-Mat investigation, on the grounds of self-defence.
In 2005 Palmer was declared bankrupt with debts of £3.5m, and in 2007 he was arrested again in Tenerife on charges of cheating tourists, drugs and weapons trafficking, counterfeiting, bribing public officials and assault. He spent two years on remand before being released on bail.
Palmer's body was discovered by his family. He had been shot in the chest, but police mistook the wound for a scar from open heart surgery, and initially announced that he had died from natural causes.
John Palmer, criminal: born Birmingham c. 1950; married Marnie (divorced; two daughters); died Brentwood, Essex 24 June 2015.Reuse content