Five men convicted of £53m heist that was 'beyond the dreams of avarice'

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The Independent Online

It was a crime described as "beyond the dreams of avarice". A gang, their faces disguised by masks, kidnapped the manager of a Kent Securitas depot, his wife and their young child at gunpoint before penetrating the depot and stealing £53m.

Armed with a rifle, a shotgun, a machine pistol and a handgun, the robbers told the depot staff they would die if they did not obey orders. As the gang fled the depot after filling a 7.5-tonne lorry with holdalls stuffed with £20 notes, one robber shouted: "Let's rock and roll."

In just 66 minutes the men managed to grab a "king's ransom", though they did not have room for a further £153m they were forced to leave behind. The hostages were left locked inside cash cages.

However, the gang's operation was peppered with "silly mistakes" and a police investigation closed in around them. About £21m of the money was recovered and, yesterday, the five men behind Britain's biggest cash robbery were convicted at the Old Bailey.

After seven days of deliberation, the jury found five men guilty of conspiracy to kidnap, conspiracy to commit robbery and conspiracy to possess firearms: Lea Rusha, 35, a former roofer, of Tunbridge Wells, Kent; Stuart Royle, 49, a car salesman, of Maidstone, Kent; Jetmir Bucpapa, 26, unemployed, of Tonbridge, Kent; Roger Coutts, 30, a garage owner from Welling, south-east London, and Emir Hysenaj, 28, a former Securitas employee, of Crowborough, East Sussex.

The judge, Mr Justice Penry-Davey, warned them they face "very substantial" prison terms when they are sentenced today.

"This is not the end of the matter for these criminals. We intend to seize their ill-gotten gains, wherever they may be," Nigel Pilkington, of the Crown Prosecution Service, said outside court.

While the robbery involved millions, it was "at its heart a crime of violence", he added. The family of the manager of the Securitas depot, Colin Dixon, had suffered a "terrifying ordeal", and all the hostages would remember the events "for the rest of their lives".

Sir John Nutting QC, for the prosecution, told the jurors that the raid was inspired by the lure of "luxury, ease and idleness", and its perpetrators were prepared to target the "innocent and vulnerable" to achieve their goals.

The trial heard that the gang had probably been planning the robbery – the sheer scale and audacity of which stunned investigators – for seven months. The "inside man", Hysenaj, filmed the depot using a tiny video camera fitted to his belt, plans of the site were obtained and the manager's movements were closely scrutinised in the weeks before the raid.

On the night of 21 February 2006, Mr Dixon, 52, was travelling home in his car having texted his wife, Lynn, to say that he was on his way.

At about 6.30pm, he was pulled over by two men posing as police officers, who took him at gunpoint to an isolated farm, informing him that his family had been kidnapped. There he was bundled into a van and had his legs tied, before being warned that he would "get a hole" in him if he disobeyed.

Mr Dixon said later: "I was scared. Threats had been made. I didn't know what was going on. It was dark. I didn't know whether the gun that I'd seen was going to be used."

At 8.40pm, Mr Dixon's wife, Lynn, who was cooking supper, opened the door to two policemen who told her that her husband had been in an accident. They offered to take her and their child to him but, as they headed to the car, Mrs Dixon realised something was wrong - among oddities was music coming from the "police" car radi. She screamed. She was then forced into the car at gunpoint.

In court, Mrs Dixon, 46, broke down as she explained how, later that night, she and her child had been forced to kneel in the robbers' lorry with guns at their heads. Having seen her captors' faces, she was terrified they were going to be killed, unaware that her kidnappers were wearing sophisticated disguises made of latex, silicone and false hair.

In the early hours of the following morning, they were taken to the Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent, where Rusha, Royle, Coutts, Bucpapa and three accomplices broke in with Mr Dixon's help. With one of the criminals dressed as a policeman by his side, Mr Dixon warned his colleagues: "Do whatever the bloke says, he's got my wife and child."

The gang then tied up the 14 workers at the depot and helped themselves to the cash. Before they left, the robbers warned staff: "We know where you live." Fearing the robbers might return, Mr Dixon did not call the police immediately. Eventually, his child managed to wriggle through the bars of the cash cage and Mr Dixon raised the alarm at 3.14am, half an hour after the gang had fled.

Securitas put up an unprecedented £2m reward and, in the coming days, police managed to locate millions of pounds stashed in locations across Kent and south-east London. The rest is thought to have been smuggled out of the country to northern Cyprus and Morocco.

One of the pivotal moments of the trial came when Michelle Hogg, a hairdresser who had been charged with assisting the gang, decided to become a prosecution witness. Ms Hogg, who made the prosthetic disguises that the robbers wore, claimed she did not know why she was being asked to do the work, a story that police and prosecutors never accepted.

Initially too afraid to name the men, she eventually agreed to identify them if charges against her were dropped. She is now in the witness protection scheme, and is destined to spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder.

Ms Hogg, who worked in the cosmetics departments of Harvey Nichols and Selfridges after studying make-up for theatre at the London College of Fashion, disguised the robbers with latex, modelling wax and dental plaster, at one point using her bra straps to pin back one of the men's eyes to make them look more slanted.

The robbery far outstripped Britain's previous biggest heist, in which £26.5m was stolen from the Northern Bank in Belfast in December 2004. It also overshadowed the Brinks-Mat robbery in November 1983, when a gang stole 6,800 bars of gold bullion worth £26m from a warehouse at Heathrow.

Detective Sergeant Andy Nicoll of Kent police said after the case: "It is really important people don't start thinking of the gang as Robin Hood characters. I do not recall Robin Hood kidnapping a child at gunpoint. We must remember the victims."

In a case that has already cost millions, police and prosecutors say others have yet to be brought to justice. Detectives still want to speak to Sean Lupton, 46, a builder from Whitstable, Kent, who was last seen near Folkestone in December 2006 and is believed to have fled to northern Cyprus. A suspected seventh robber, Keyinde Patterson, is thought to have sought sanctuary in the West Indies while others – who cannot be named for legal reasons – are still awaiting trial.

John Fowler, 59, a millionaire car dealer, of Staplehurst, was cleared of all charges. Keith Borer, 54, from Maidstone, was cleared of handling stolen money.

The man who walked free...

* John Fowler is a millionaire car salesman who, along with his wife Linda, owns a home with two acres of landscaped gardens, a swimming pool, tennis court and stables, as well as a villa near Marbella and several other properties in Kent. When police searched his main home they found £105,000 in the grounds and £30,000 in Securitas wrappers in the boot of a car. Fowler refused to give evidence and claimed that he was asleep during the robbery.

The guilty men

* Stuart Royle

The 49-year-old car dealer is said to have provided most of the vehicles and driven the getaway lorry.

* Lea Rusha

The 35-year-old former roofer was said to be one of the two men who kidnapped the Dixons at gunpoint.

* Jetmir Bucpapa

Cannabis dealer seen as the link between the robbery gang and the "inside man", Emir Hysenaj, a fellow Albanian .

* Emir Hysenaj

The 28-year-old began work at Securitas two months before raid. Made covert video but was not one of the robbers.

* Roger Coutts

Took part in both the kidnap and the robbery. His DNA was found on an £8.6m cash find.