'Goldfinger' Palmer ordered to hand over £33m after massive timeshare fraud

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The wealthy and well-connected criminal behind Britain's biggest timeshare fraud, which conned 17,000 customers, must hand over up to £33m in money and assets, a judge at the Old Bailey ruled yesterday.

The sum, which represents only about one eighth of John "Goldfinger" Palmer's fortune, was smaller than the £47m that prosecutors were seeking to confiscate.

Palmer had talked holiday-makers into buying timeshares with promises that they would make a fortune. They were then sucked into contracts forcing them to make enormous repayments, and the vast profits promised never came. The fraud was the biggest yet perpetrated on the British public.

The Crown was seeking a payment of £47m from Palmer, who has an estimated fortune of £270m, including a yacht, a French chateau with its own golf course and a mansion in the West Country.

But after a week-long hearing at the Old Bailey, it settled for a maximum of £33m based on a ruling that Palmer had duped only 70 per cent of his clients.

Palmer's defence claimed the confiscation order should involve a maximum of £1.3m. Peter Kelson QC, for the defence, insisted that the basis of the Crown's figures, a random survey of some of Palmer's victims, was unfair.

But Judge Gerald Gordon said yesterday: "I reject the submission that I should exclude these statistics all together."

In an attempt to assess how much Palmer had made from the fraud, police sent a questionnaire to 500 people who had each paid to spend a week at one of Palmer's resorts in Tenerife.

Using the results as a guideline, it was decided that nearly three-quarters of Palmer's timeshare customers had been duped by sales teams based in Tenerife.

His empire, in which he invested £5m on 450 villas and employed 3,000 people, was run using intimidation that ensured his mainly-British team of touts had the best pitches to ensnare the holidaymakers. Palmer, 52, of Bath, who is currently serving an eight-year jail term, was not at the hearing but must appear when the order is finally made next week.

The former coin dealer was clearing of handling the proceeds from the £26m Brink's-Mat gold bullion robbery at Heathrow in 1983.

He was cleared, despite having a gold smelting machine at his home, but the case earned him his nick-name.

He is an associate of Kenneth Noye, the M25 road rage murderer, whom he helped smuggle out of the country in his helicopter after the fatal stabbing of Stephen Cameron in 1996. Noye was eventually caught after an undercover operation in Spain.

Palmer's first trial into the timeshare allegations was stopped after eight months in 1999 because he argued that publicity over his links to Noye had tainted his case. Palmer, who defended himself, was convicted at a second trial and earlier this month failed in his attempt to have the trial ruled invalid. Lawyers believe the two trials cost more than £15m.