Who wants Joe Lewis dead?

Sophie Goodchild and Yvonne Ridley on the mystery surrounding an attempt to kill Britain's fourth richest man
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The Independent Online

JOE LEWIS is reputedly the fourth richest man in Britain with a fortune of £2bn - not bad for a man born into poverty in the East End of London. But with money like that enemies are certain - and someone is trying to kill the international financial trader.

JOE LEWIS is reputedly the fourth richest man in Britain with a fortune of £2bn - not bad for a man born into poverty in the East End of London. But with money like that enemies are certain - and someone is trying to kill the international financial trader.

Details are slowly emerging of a failed murder attempt in a remote part of Argentina.

Locals yesterday told of ranks of security guards pacing around his mansion at the foot of the Andes. Whether he was in occupancy was unclear. One rumour had it that he was staying elsewhere under police protection.

Nor is it clear exactly when the attempt on his life was made although it is believed to have been earlier this month. Along with his wife Jane, he had flown in his private helicopter to a local village for lunch. Just minutes after they waved goodbye to the pilot and headed towards the restaurant, the helicopter was ripped apart by an explosion. Mr Lewis and his wife were unhurt but death was instant for the pilot, a personal friend.

So who would want to kill him? Neighbours claim that "El Rico"has upset people by buying land cheaply. Others claim that a tribe of Indians want revenge after he erected a building near a lake inhabited by a sleeping god. And "revenge" South American style pulls no punches.

The Argentinian police were last night refusing to speculate. British friends were equally tight-lipped. The real answer will be hard to obtain as Mr Lewis, 62, fiercely guards his privacy. Few pictures of him exist and he shies away from giving interviews. He lists Sean Connery among his friends but avoids the glitzy social circuit. He belongs to an elite group of traders whose obsession is making money.

"These are men who play with money. It's a shadowy world which few are allowed to enter. These guys don't get rich by making friends," said one business associate, keen that his name not be used.

The Joe Lewis story is fairy tale rags to riches. Born above a pub in Bow, east London, he left school at 15 to work in his father's catering business as a £6-a-week waiter. Even then he displayed an acute flair for making money. He likes to tell the story of how he would lug a concrete bus stop sign from its usual place and position it outside his father's cafe to increase custom. This technique was a roaring success.

From this humble start, the young Lewis made his early fortune from the Beefeater pub chain. But he soon realised the really serious money was to be made playing currency and futures markets.

By nature a gambler (he will bet £30,000 on a hole at golf) he invested shrewdly, making the millions that enabled him to buy up shares in football clubs. Family investments include £40m in Glasgow Rangers as well as Vincenza of Italy, Slavia Prague of the Czech Republic and AEK Athens of Greece. He recently sold a stake in the auction house Christie's.

Despite his wealth his life has been touched by loss. His father Charles died from cancer and in his memory Mr Lewis set up a foundation to help combat the disease. It is run by his daughter, Vivienne.

Now a tax exile, the man described by friends as small and dapper runs his business empire from Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. This is a 1,000-acre community of British expatriates, Greek shipping magnates and second division European royalty who can turn in privacy under the Bahamian sun. There's even a plastic surgery hospital just outside the gates should life start to sag.

Home in Lyford Cay is a £15m property called Lewis House, which the billionaire shares with his second wife Jane, his former assistant. Those who have met her say she's blonde but does not fall into the bombshell bracket.

The first Mrs Lewis, Esther Browne, lives rather more modestly in a small cottage in Limerick in Ireland. She may have missed out on his millions but has always been ready with praise for the father of her two children.

Mr Lewis's neighbours include Viktor Kozeny, nicknamed the Pirate of Prague for making money at the expense of his fellow Czechs. Entry into the community was not smooth at first for the East Ender who still retains his cockney accent. The Lyford Cay Club, regarded as the epicentre of the social scene, refused him access.

In retaliation, he built his own tennis court right at the edge of the boundary between his house and the club. A few barbecues later, Mr Lewis is now a fully fledged member of the club.

In the grounds of Lewis House is the dealing room which is the focus for Mr Lewis's trading operations. Air-conditioned 24 hours a day, this houses his select team of dealers who are rumoured to earn a million dollars a year, excluding bonuses.

Despite his prodigious wealth, Mr Lewis still reverses the charges when he calls his London brokers; this is a canny move - the bill for 20 phone calls a day from Nassau can be prohibitive.For a billionaire, his toys are relatively modest. There's a motor yacht complete with a cinema and a gymnasium as well as a private jet and a box at Royal Ascot. His art collection includes several works by Chagall, Miro and Picasso. The art world has benefited from his wealth - he once donated £2.5m to the Wallace Collection.

This is all a world apart from his humble beginnings on Roman Road. They still sell jellied eels round here but the market traders complain that these days everyone shops at the local supermarket.

The Roman Arms pub where Mr Lewis was born was knocked down soon after the war. Until recently it was a Mr Byrite shop but this is now closed down. Soon it will reopen as a betting shop.