Recluse who terrorised high street of terror

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The Independent Online
A 61-YEAR-OLD unemployed man admitted in court yesterday that he was the elusive "Mardi Gra" bomber behind a three-year terror campaign aimed at extorting hundreds of thousands of pounds from high street banks and shops.

Edgar Pearce, a self-styled property developer from Chiswick, west London, pleaded guilty to 20 charges, including blackmail attempts on Barclays Bank and Sainsbury's supermarket. In all, he was responsible for an estimated 36 attacks involving home-made bombs against randomly selected individuals and firms.

He was finally captured by a combination of brain power and manpower. In one of the biggest surveillance operations ever mounted, up to 1,000 officers from Scotland Yard and the National Crime Squad kept watch for the blackmailer at hundreds of cash-point machines.

Pearce got the idea for his extortion plot from a daytime television programme about Rodney Witchelo, a former policeman who tried to extort pounds 4m from Heinz. Witchelo was jailed for 17 years in 1990 for spiking jars of baby food on supermarket shelves with bleach and razor blades. Pearce copied one of Witchelo's ideas - demanding cash cards with special PIN numbers that would allow him to withdraw pounds 10,000 a day for an unlimited period from automatic cash machines. He also obtained details from books and television programmes on building explosive devices.

He first struck in December 1994, when packages wrapped neatly in Christmas paper were sent to six west London branches of Barclays Bank in video boxes which bore a Reservoir Dogs-style picture and the words, "Welcome to the Mardi Gra Experience". Inside each was a simple trigger device which automatically detonated a shotgun cartridge as the box was opened. The first two went off, causing slight burns to employees, but the others were defused. Barclays was targeted because several years earlier, Pearce and his wife had got into a dispute with the bank.

Over the next 14 months, the bomber struck another 19 times. Most devices were sent to addresses in London, directly to the bank, its officials or companies connected with them, or placed in telephone boxes outside banks. The second phase involved targeting members of the public at random, selected from the phone directory, while a third phase involved random businesses. Targets included a camera shop in Kent, a farm and a tax inspector in Cambridgeshire.

Pearce drew on his background in advertising to produce a snappy "calling card". The name "Mardi Gra" was chosen because in French it means "Fat Tuesday": his first wave of blackmail demands had been sent out on a Tuesday.

Police were baffled about the motive until Barclays received a letter, signed "Mardine Graham", demanding pounds 10,000 a day for an unlimited period via cash cards. The bank was told to communicate through the small ads column in a national newspaper. An early plan to lure the bomber into a trap failed when Barclays said it was having trouble complying with his demands. Mardi Gra cut off communications and started a fresh wave of attacks using more sophisticated bombs.

Pearce next turned his attention to Sainsbury's, claiming he feared Barclays would start closing branches. The supermarket had just lost its position as the market leader and was therefore "vulnerable". He struck at three branches in November 1997. Curtis Dennis suffered the worse injury, in an attack near Sainsbury's store in Forest Hill, south London, in March, 1998. His thigh was injured and he had to give up his sporting ambitions.

Detectives became increasingly frustrated with the lack of clues. The bomber went to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection: he used disguises and constantly varied his methods of attack.

There was a false alarmthree weeks before he wascaught, when armed police officers arrested a man spottedplacing boxes around a Sainsbury's store in west London. He turned out to be a rat catcher.

Pearce's downfall came after he arranged for a series of cash cards designed to look like a promotional gimmick to be given away with a magazine. Although anyone could buy the cards, only the police and the blackmailer knew their real purpose. More than pounds 20,000 was paid into a secret account able to be accessed by the cards at several banks and building societies, with a daily withdrawal limit of pounds 2,000.

Cash points in the west and south London areas were fitted with surveillance cameras. Teams of plain-clothes officers from the Metropolitan Police and the newly formed National Crime Squad kept a 24-hour watch from hidden posts.

The account was linked to a computer that sounded an alarm within seconds of Mardi Gra tapping in the PIN number.

Pearce managed to pocket only pounds 700 before he was trapped. On the evening of 28 April last year, moments after he withdrew pounds 250 at Whitton, near Twickenham in south-west London, he was arrested.

Police saw Pearce - wearing a wig and beard - get into a red Vauxhall Senator, which was promptly hemmed in by unmarked police cars. The pounds 250 taken from the cash machine was seized. At 1 o'clock that night, armed police broke down the door of Pearce's home. They found two home-made pipe bombs, a pistol, 272 shotgun cartridges, springs, nails, and video boxes. Disguiseswere also discovered.

Pearce pleaded guilty yesterday to nine counts of blackmail, three offences involving explosives, one count of wounding, three assault and four firearms offences. He will be sentenced next week on a date to be decided.

His brother Ronald, 67, was arrested with him. But yesterday the charges against the older Pearce were dropped. He was, however, jailed for 12 months, the length of time he has been in custody, after he pleaded guilty to the illegal possession of a stun gun.

Detective Chief Superintendent Jeffrey Rees, who led the hunt for Mardi Gra, said last night: "This was a callous, calculating individual who was wholly indifferent to the possibility the devices might cause death or serious injuries. It was a miracle no-one was killed."