Trevor Thomas: Taken to the cleaners

To his glitzy showbusiness clientele, Trevor Thomas was a respected financial adviser. But to the police, he was the suspected kingpin in a major money-laundering conspiracy. John Walsh hears how his well-ordered life was ripped apart
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The Independent Online

Trevor Lloyd Thomas, 46, is a man with a story to tell. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, he has told it many times to many people, and revolved it in his own head like an incantation. A fictional version of the story now exists, as a thriller seeking a publisher, but its raw narrative has about it a touch of the Victorian novel of retribution. It's the story of man with a yearning to be respected, who sailed too close to the winds of illegality, was pursued for three years by the Eumenides of the British authorities, and found his business and life falling spectacularly apart.

Thomas is a financial consultant, a beefy, ebullient man with an alarming, wall-shaking laugh. He has needed a sense of humour over the last four years. Before 1999, he could feel proud of his enterprise in building up from scratch a tax consultancy with a client list of starry names from the sporting and showbiz worlds. His origins were unpromising. "I come from a broken home," he says. "I never knew my father or have even seen a photograph of him. I was raised by a foster family. Respect was always very important to me, which is why I've got more degrees than any human really needs. It was a need for recognition, to be able to say, 'This is who I am...'."

He read Law at Warwick University, did an MA in International Comparative Business Law, and qualified as an accountant at Arthur Andersen. He set up his own company, TL Thomas & Co, in 1988. "We took whatever came through the door in those early days - a little auditing, a little tax, a little financial planning. It was general practice." Over the next 11 years, Thomas began to specialise more and more in an area that fascinated him: setting up offshore trusts and companies for purposes of minimising tax. It became a lucrative niche. The clients were considerably richer than people who simply wanted help with their self-assessment forms. They were, says Thomas, "high-earning, high-network individuals in sport and entertainment - yes, Independent readers would have heard of them. Recording artists and famous sportsmen earning enough to need to channel their earnings through low-taxation territories overseas."

In 1999, however, his marriage packed up and his wife, Jadzia, asked him to move out. He moved into a flat in Eastbourne and set himself the task of writing a PhD on "The use of offshore financial centres in international tax planning" before "coming back and breathing life into the practice, with a more specialised clientele". He also found a new girlfriend, Beverley Tracey, a customer relations officer for National Westminster bank. Through Beverley, Thomas met Lisa Murray, a white Jamaican who ran a hairdressing salon called Millennium. In due course, Beverley asked her new beau if he would take Lisa on as a client. Thomas said no - "She was the type of client I was trying to get away from." But Lisa persisted. "Whatever Trevor charges, I want him," she reportedly said. So Thomas did a year's tax computations on her salon, charged her top rates, and thought no more about it.

On the morning of 31 August, 2000, Thomas's telephone rang. It was Beverley, calling to say she was in trouble with the police. She was under arrest for drug-trafficking. "I knew there was no way she could be involved in that," says Thomas. "She didn't take drugs. She hardly drank. The whole thing was nonsense." But something was going on. The police were going on the evidence of a raid on two safety-deposit boxes held at the bank in her name. They contained the sum of £137,250.

Thomas arranged Beverley's legal defence, and agreed to stand bail for £50,000. "I had to help her," he says. "She had a 10-year-old daughter, and without someone standing bail, she'd have been left on remand until the trial." He paid up out of his company's business reserve account.

Whereupon the police came to see him. They said they believed he was involved in a drugs-trafficking scam. For some time, as part of "Operation Beluga", the police had been keeping under surveillance a man called Peter Wilson, who ran an auto-repairs shop. They suspected him of involvement in drugs. Wilson's girlfriend was Lisa Murray. When the police raided their flat, they found, on the mantelpiece, two tickets to two safety-deposit boxes at the Nat West bank, held in the name of Beverley Tracey, girlfriend of Trevor Thomas, who had now become Murray's accountant. Trevor Thomas, whose area of expertise was tax avoidance, off-shore trusts, footballers, showbiz types, rackety associates...

It looked a little incriminating. "They kept asking me, 'Do you know Peter Wilson. Aren't you friends?' I told them, No, I've never met him, which was true. Beverley was the only one I was involved with," says Thomas.

As for his being a drugs baron - "I laughed at them," remembers Thomas. "I thought, how silly can you get? And I mocked them." When they asked the killer question - "Is the money in the deposit box yours?" - Thomas, fatally, prevaricated. "I refused to answer. And two weeks later, they turned up at my office and arrested me for 'Conspiracy to launder the proceeds of drugs-trafficking, that conspiracy being with Peter Wilson, Lisa Murray and Beverley Tracey'."

Thomas is still a little unclear as to why he didn't just deny the money was his. "It seemed to me that Beverley could have gone to trial without explaining the source of the money at all. Under our legal system, she didn't have to explain anything. The prosecution has to prove the money came from illicit activity. But I saw the ways their minds worked. If she said she was holding the money for Trevor Thomas, then that would be a perfect answer that had nothing to do with drug-trafficking. So they had to shut that door by asking me about the money. And I was saying, this is a door I'm not prepared to shut."

The police searched his office in Greenwich, and took away some files. They raided his home and searched it thoroughly. "But what were they looking for?" muses Thomas. "Evidence of money-laundering? What's that look like?" He spent a night in the cells and in the morning was interviewed. He refused to answer any questions, but read a statement saying he had never laundered money for his three co-defendants or anyone else.

Worse was to follow. For among the files the police took away from his offices were the details about a client called Bill, who was himself in trouble with the police. "Bill is a very well-connected, high-profile guy who made a lot of money from property development, importing of designer labels, and jewellery and clothing businesses," says Thomas. "He's East End Irish, very quick, functionally illiterate but can spot a margin at a hundred paces. He'd paid his tax but the Revenue were asking questions about his previous history and suddenly there was a full-scale investigation at the Special Compliance office. So he'd come to me for help."

Thomas discovered that Bill had been arrested on charges of drug-trafficking. The police wrote to Thomas asking to see his client's files, which he duly supplied.

So a second front opened up in the battle of Fate vs Trevor Thomas. Officers came to his office and questioned him about Bill the rogue Irishman. "One question was: 'Did you set up an offshore trust for this man?' I declined to comment. In fact I had set up a trust for Bill - he had several property developments in Spain, and it made sense to form an offshore company to avoid paying the highest level of income tax. It was a Bahamian company with a Cayman bank account and a Channel Islands address. But the very term 'offshore', to the average policeman, suggests something crooked. The police who'd arrested me in the first case asked the same question about Peter Wilson - had I organised an offshore trust for him? - and I'd answered no, because I hadn't, I didn't know him. Now it turned out I'd set up an offshore company for someone whom they'd now arrested. When I was interviewed, I could tell they were building up a picture about me. I could see them thinking, 'If we push, is the whole structure going to come crashing down?'."

By October 2000, Trevor Thomas had been arrested for one conspiracy to launder the proceeds of drug-trafficking - and was now under investigation for another. He seemed to be turning into a Mister Big of both tax fraud and narcotics handling. Nobody knew how far his empire might extend. But there were 200 clients in his files, from the worlds of sport and showbiz - and the police started investigating them. "They told my clients I was in trouble without specifying what that trouble might be," says Thomas. "They asked whether I'd ever handled their money. Another client later told me that they had intimated they had reason to believe that she'd had a sexual relationship with me..."

Clients began to fall away from Trevor Thomas. Over the next year, his fee income dropped by 50 per cent as his starry customers left. "Many of them rang me and said, 'I'm really sorry, I'm sure you understand, call me when this is all over, all that stuff. But they said their financial affairs were sacred, and they didn't want any whiff of scandal getting in the newspapers."

The year 2001 rolled by. Thomas was never charged with money-laundering in concert with Peter Wilson and the others. At the court case in December 2001, Wilson got 14 years for drug-trafficking. Lisa Murray was convicted of money-laundering and got three years in jail. Beverley Tracey pleaded guilty to "knowingly holding the receipts of a crime" and was given two years' community rehabilitation.

The £137,250 in the safety-deposit boxes turned out to be money Lisa Murray was salting away from Peter Wilson's drug operation, against the day when she could leave him and strike out on her own. Beverley was dismissed from NatWest for gross misconduct, and remained in a relationship with Thomas.

All year, Thomas was awaiting trial. As his business slid towards perdition, so did its founder. "Did I have difficulty with my credit rating? I had difficulty with me," he says with feeling. "I became depressed. I started drinking heavily. I took up smoking again. I felt under siege. I felt a victim. I couldn't answer the phone. I'd pretend not to be there." He and Beverley had a baby in June but their relationship declined after her court case. "Most of the reason for our talking all the time had gone."

Finally, the second case came to trial. In spring 2002, Trevor Thomas had been charged for money-laundering alongside the charismatic Bill, Bill's travel agent and his estate agent. "I can only assume the thinking was, Bill is engaged in drug-trafficking, we all dealt in his money so we must all have helped him launder the cash. The case didn't come to trial until July 2003, and was finally thrown out. No further action to be taken. I was in the clear. But my head wasn't on straight. By the end, the only thing I had to show for it all was the book."

The book is the residue of those testing times. Thomas sat down in the midst of his trials and wrote a novel called The Laundryman. He began it in 2001 and finished it last summer. "I just conceived of a story similar to my own, at least initially. What if there was one man responsible for laundering the money from the principal cocaine suppliers in London? And what if they came to arrest the man and got the wrong one? And what would that man have to do to identify the real laundryman?"

The manuscript is in the hands of Eddie Bell, the former head of HarperCollins, who is now a literary agent. Heaven knows whether Trevor Thomas's misadventures in the world of offshore financing will translate into a bestseller. But his story is a salutary lesson in the quagmire of tax accounting, the moral maze of financial micro-management and the Kafkaesque corridors of official investigation.