Be afraid, be very afraid. The message from Nicholas van Hoogstraten, dressed in his trademark leather coat, pin-stripe suit and two-inch Cuban heels, was as clear as it was chilling. Britain's most notorious landlord was back with a vengeance.
Yesterday, Mr van Hoogstraten celebrated the overturning of his conviction for the manslaughter of a business rival by declaring that he was planning to sue "just about everybody". The man who received his first criminal conviction at the age of 11 before becoming the youngest self-made millionaire in Britain at 22 left no doubt that his legal crusade would go on.
From the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Metropolitan Police, to his former lawyers and business associates, Mr van Hoogstraten ominously suggested that few would escape from his attempts to seek justice.
One of his targets may well be Michaal Hamdan, a former business associate believed to have been instrumental in putting Mr van Hoogstraten in the dock. He refused to testify during the trial and is thought to have fled the country without giving any evidence at all. Speaking to the assembled media at the Old Bailey, Mr van Hoogstraten said: "This prosecution should never have been brought. I have suffered two years of legal incompetence and dishonesty. Evidence was deliberately hidden by the CPS and the police. It would have shown who the instigators and the participants in this crime were." It was when asked whom he was planning to take legal action against, that he ominously replied: "Just about everybody." He added: "I'm not allowed to give further details at this stage."
But the shock waves that ensued from the release of Mr van Hoogstraten, a man with a volcanic temperament and a notoriously Machiavellian management style, were not confined to his business associates.
Residents near his sprawling, unfinished neo-classical edifice, Hamilton Palace, in the East Sussex countryside, also expressed fear at the prospect of his return.
Yesterday, Mr van Hoogstraten, 58, revealed that his stint in prison had done little to dent his dogged tenacity and fiery temperament. He made his avowal to "sue" immediately after he was formally acquitted of the murder of Mohammed Raja, 62, in Sutton, south London, four years ago.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Mr van Hoogstraten had been released from Belmarsh Prison following a Court of Appeal ruling that there was no foundation for a manslaughter case and he would not have to face a retrial. He had served 17-months of a 10-year sentence for the manslaughter of Mr Raja, who was stabbed five times and shot in the face with a sawn-off shotgun at his home in July 1999. While two small-time thugs, Robert Knapp and David Croke, were jailed for life for the murder of Mr Raja, Mr van Hoogstraten was convicted for allegedly masterminding the assassination of his business rival.
After Monday's hearing at the Old Bailey, the property tycoon appeared to be revelling in his new-found freedom yesterday. Finally agreeing to talk after keeping the gathered media waiting for more than an hour as he chatted to his entourage, he did not fail to live up to his explosive reputation.
He revealed that he had made a formal complaint to the Metropolitan Police that evidence revealing the perpetrator of the crime for which he was imprisoned had been withheld during the trial.
"This investigation was commenced but it was stayed pending the hearing at the Court of Appeal," he said. "I trust that this investigation into the police conduct of this case as a result of my complaints last year will be diligently pursued. If it is not, I will have further recourse."
The Metropolitan Police later confirmed that a complaint was to be investigated into allegations of the "irregular practices" of an officer involved in Mr Raja's murder trial. The next legal battle on the list for Mr van Hoogstraten involves the family of the late Mr Raja, who was in the process of suing him at the time of his death. After his family pursued the civil action and won £5m last December, Mr van Hoogstraten launched an appeal which will be heard in the High Court next March.
Despite insisting that he was sympathetic towards the Raja family, he said: "They have partly bought this upon themselves."
While Mr van Hoogstraten's fortune was once estimated at £500m, his assets of £90m remain frozen in connection with the pending High Court case involving the Raja family, while a further £30m has been sequestrated.
Mr van Hoogstraten, who states that his political allegiances lie " to the right of Attila the Hun", refused to answer any further questions from The Independent, because he claimed it was a "left-wing, anarchist publication".
But the family of Mr Raja expressed greater disappointment than surprise at the comments of Mr van Hoogstraten, possibly in the light of the fact that he has previously told one of Mr Raja's six sons: "Your dad is a maggot."
Yesterday, his son Amjad Raja, 42, told The Independent: "His release does send shivers down our spines. He has made these comments against our father as he knows that a dead man cannot take action against him. It is very hard for us but we have to continue fighting otherwise our father will have died in vain. Someone has to stand up to this man."
For many whose paths have crossed with that of Mr van Hoogstraten, his unsavoury comments about Mr Raja should come as little surprise.
He once described a number of tenants who died in a fire in one of his properties as "low-life, drug dealers, drug takers and queers - scum". His own mother was referred to as "a miserable cow". Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President, on the other hand, warranted the description "100 per cent decent and incorruptible".
Meanwhile, for the residents of his home village of Uckfield, the prospect of the return continues to instil fear. The property magnate had made his mark locally, not only with his £40m home, but as landlord to scores of tenants. He is also a vociferous critic of ramblers, whom he has described as "perverts" and "the great unwashed". In the 1980s, he came to blows with the Ramblers' Association, who represented local walkers aggrieved at being denied an ancient right of way across his estate.
Shelley Garner, 81, from the nearby village of Framfield, said: "I have lived here since 1969 and I have never seen him but, at one stage, you were frightened to go walking near the estate. It was just very intimidating, all the lengths he went to to keep people off his land." The Ramblers' Association said full rights of way had been restored on the footpath, which takes walkers within no more than half a mile of Hamilton Palace. A spokesman for the organisation said: "He went out of his way to keep out what he termed riff-raff. I went down there myself to sort the issue out and felt pretty scared by his minders."
Mr van Hoogstraten claimed yesterday that he received up to 900 letters of support during his stint in Belmarsh Prison, and admitted that he had received four negative letters, two of them from ramblers.
During his time at Hamilton Palace, named after the capital of Bermuda, he has lived in an adjacent building while keeping a careful watch on building contractors.
Work on Hamilton Palace has come to a halt during the owner's imprisonment, but locals fear that may soon change.
One neighbour in her thirties from the hamlet of Palehouse Common, on the edge of the estate, said: "He was more of a hate figure for my parents when he was gaining a reputation in the 1960s. But he won't be welcome back here. The main concern is that he's going to make it his base now.''
WHY IS HE FREE?
Nicholas van Hoogstraten has never admitted sending his henchmen to intimidate his business rival, Mohammed Raja.
In a pre-trial hearing last week Mr Justice Stephen Mitchell ruled that even if Mr van Hoogstraten had ordered the intimidation he could not have expected them to use guns to kill Mr Raja.
Before the case against Mr van Hoogstraten reached the Old Bailey last year, witnesses for the prosecution withdrew their co-operation. Police are still investigating three allegations of attempting to pervert the course of justice in connection with the first trial.
Without all their witnesses the Crown Prosecution Service say the case of murder was weakened, and the jury acquitted Mr van Hoogstraten of premeditated killing.
The judge offered the jury an alternative charge of manslaughter for which the multimillionaire was duly convicted and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. The property tycoon appealed against his conviction and sentence. On 23 July his conviction was quashed on the grounds that the trial judge had misdirected the jury, as the direction did not properly explain the relationship between the charge of manslaughter and the possible use of a loaded firearm.
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