Arms dealer jailed over pounds 26m fraud killing: Accountant was shot dead when conspirators feared exposure of ship swindle. Malcolm Pithers reports

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AN ARMS dealer was last night jailed for life for aiding and abetting the murder of an accountant who was killed by hitmen after he became embroiled in a dollars 40m ( pounds 26.5m) international shipping fraud.

A jury at Carlisle Crown Court found Stephen Schepke, 46, guilty of paying a private detective to keep watch on David Wilson and send his home address to a man in the US, whom the Crown said was behind a multi-million pound international cigarette fraud in which Mr Wilson was involved.

The prosecution alleged that a Hector Portillo in New York had ordered the killing because Mr Wilson had been talking to police about a planned insurance fraud in the hope of receiving a reward. The jury could not agree on a conspiracy charge against Schepke, from Sidcup, south-east London. Two further charges of supplying guns which Schepke denied were left to lie on the file.

Mr Wilson, 47, from Chorley, Lancashire, was shot twice in the back of the head in the garage of his home on 5 March 1992. The killers have never been found.

Mr Wilson was involved in a plan to ship Marlboro cigarettes across the Atlantic in a ship named the Lisa Marie. The court had heard that a police investigation uncovered an international ring of people that Mr Wilson had been dealing with. The shipping fraud also involved a plan to scuttle the Lisa Marie for the insurance money.

STEPHEN SCHEPKE, an accomplished art restorer, earned his living in the London suburb of Sidcup by giving private art lessons. Described by his friends as eccentric and totally disorganised, he was a man who drank heavily, often at his local Conservative club.

But Schepke (he was born Stephen Harrop in Oldham, Greater Manchester) also had another trade. He was a registered arms restorer and dealer, a man who slept with a loaded gun under his pillow.

The 46-year-old man had lived in Zurich before moving to Nuremburg, where he became involved in arms restoring. He returned to Britain 13 years ago, settling in south-east London with his wife, Sally, and their two children.

But he was plagued by debts and he hoped an international shipping fraud involving a phantom cargo of cigarettes in which he became involved would give him enough to pay off the pounds 60,000 he owed.

Instead, he became embroiled in a criminal trail that led to the brutal murder of David Wilson: shot dead in his garage while his family was held hostage. The fraud plan involved a fictitious cargo of Marlboro cigarettes which were to be 'sold' to various buyers or commodities brokers. They were to be induced to release letters of credit for what was a phantom shipment. Mr Wilson had helped purchase a vessel called the Gregory, which he renamed the Lisa Marie after his daughter. This ship was to be used in the fraud and there was said to be a plan, either to scuttle her at sea or use her under a different title. A massive insurance claim could then have been made on the loss.

Mr Wilson's home was in the Lancashire village of Brinscall, near Chorley, on the edge of the Pennine hills.

On the night of 5 March 1992, two men, their faces hidden by balaclavas, arrived at the house shortly after 8.45pm. Mr Wilson, 47, was out with his wife, Barbara, fitting a new carpet for Lisa Marie and her fiance. Another daughter, Michelle, 27, was at the house with the family dogs, watching television.

When she answered the door the two hooded gunmen burst in, tied her up and waited. After more than two hours, Mr Wilson and the rest of his family arrived. The gunmen tied their hands behind their backs, gagged them and separated the men and women. They then walked the accountant to his garage where he was shot twice in the head at point-blank range.

Over the past few weeks, Schepke, a slight, bookish man, has sat in the dock at Carlisle Crown Court while the jury of nine men and three women listened to an account of the events which led to Mr Wilson's 'execution' by professional killers.

The court heard that Schepke went to Lloyd's of London and told one of the senior investigators there, Anthony Cook, about the planned insurance fraud and his concerns about Wilson's life. He was hoping for a sizeable reward.

Lloyd's passed the information on to the City of London Police. They in turn were told of a lengthy inquiry being made into the alleged fraud by Dutch police and had the investigation taken out of their hands.

Scotland Yard's serious fraud squad became involved and interviewed, among others, Mr Wilson. He was arrested on 5 February, 1992, a month before being killed, and released on police bail. Police now say that it is unlikely that Mr Wilson would have been charged with any offence in connection with the fraud.

News of Mr Wilson being interviewed by the police, coupled with a threatening fax message he sent to the New York contact, known as Hector Portillo or Hector Moretta, saying 'he would have his day', probably sealed his fate.

The Crown's case against Schepke was that he conspired with others to help set up the killing, although yesterday the jury was discharged from giving a verdict on a conspiracy charge.

He received dollars 1,000 through a Western Union office in Crayford, Essex, on 25 February 1992, the month before Mr Wilson was shot. The money was sent, say the police, from the man who ordered Mr Wilson's death and was to pay for the surveillance on his home.

Schepke's house, according to the Crown, was also telephoned 149 times during a five-month period prior to the killing, from the American's telephone.

When police found Mr Wilson's body it had all the hallmarks of a gangland or professional killing.

It is not clear whether Mr Wilson was a party to the potential fraud or not but it seems he was seen as a threat to the whole operation and simply eliminated. He did set up a company and made contact with about 30 potential buyers then entered in contracts to supply the cigarettes. The accountant flew out with another associate to Venezuela to see what was happening to the Lisa Marie and discovered the ship did not hold any cigarettes. He returned to England on 23 February 1992, and sent a strongly worded fax message to the New York contact he had been dealing with. Within a couple of weeks he was shot dead.

In New York the man named as Hector Portillo is contesting extradition to this country to stand trial for the assassination which, the Crown will allege, he ordered rather than carried out. A US attorney at the Eastern District court in New York has ruled that the man did orchestrate Mr Wilson's killing and should be extradited.

Other individuals in England have now been charged with defrauding clearing banks in this country and are to stand trial in the North-west soon.

(Photograph omitted)