Insurance pirate of the Mediterranean: the extraordinary life of Mark Langford

When his compensation claims firm went bust, he departed to Spain with his millions. But the tax authorities were on his trail. By Martin Hodgson and Bill Bond in Madrid
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The Independent Online

For a man who built his fortune on accidents, real or imagined, the one that's been waiting to happen to Mark Langford was a long time coming. So long, that he must have thought it was never going to arrive.

For the last three and a half years multi-millionaire Mr Langford has been living among some pretty dubious company in the Spanish resort of Marbella. He's been there ever since his firm, the Accident Group - which farmed "Where there's a blame, there's a claim" compensation cases - went bust and notoriously fired its 2,500 staff with a text that read: "Urgent. Unfortunately salaries not paid. Please do not contact office. Full details to follow later today." They and many of the firm's clients were left without a penny.

But Mr Langford and his wife Debbie were not. They had their 24-acre estate in Cheshire, a luxurious place in Spain, a yacht, and the millions and millions they'd taken out of the company, plus the benefits of an £8m off-shore trust fund, also paid for from TAG's proceeds. As the recriminations over the collapse of the firm began, he was basking in the Spanish sun and forging a new life. There was the Mercedes E-class, designer shops, exclusive golf club, renting a villa on Adnan Khashoggi's former estate and fellow residents such as wealthy misfit Mark Thatcher and half the monied dross of the European underworld.

But this is not just the story of Langford and a huddle of ne'er-do-wells in Marbella. It's a tale of a come-uppance, and one delivered - personally, as it happens - by that most criticised species, the British tax inspector.

Seven days ago, as Mr Langford and his wife prepared to host a party aboard their 80ft yacht Mermaid's Whisper in Puerto Banus harbour, there came from the quayside the voice of an uninvited interloper. The representative of the British tax man had come to call, and with him he had two writs totalling £4.1m for the couple. One onlooker said: "When Langford's wife refused to get off, the bailiff threatened to shout out the contents of the demand to the whole port. You should see how quickly she ran off the boat to get it." He added: "The bailiff got Langford as he walked up the gangplank in front of dozens of tourists. He went completely grey and his legs almost buckled. He was furious and tried to snatch the writ out of the bailiff's hand."

Mr Langford's reaction was understandable; he had seemed untouchable for so long. He and his wife are regularly seen on their boat, and reported to sometimes eat in the port's best restaurants, including the Michelin-starred El Lago and the celebrated Tony Dalli's. They have frequently been seen driving into the swish port, which boasts shops by Versace, Armani and Gucci, and their two daughters attend the £11,000-a-year King's School just outside Marbella.

Their base was, first, their own home in a gated community called Nueva Andalucia, and then, when that was sold, a five-bedroom rented pile with a sweeping drive and a big heated pool on Marbella's exclusive Zagaleta estate. Mr Langford is believed to have paid about €100,000 up front for a year's let in what is said to be the most expensive development in southern Spain. The estate, with two entrances guarded by armed security, is impossible to enter uninvited.

Marbella and the Costa del Sol is where European crime's more successful flotsam and jetsam wash up. The Italian Camorra, who founded the Costa's money-laundering franchise by buying miles of holiday developments, are still there, making their millions "respectable" and supplying much of Italy's cannabis needs. Their French cousins from Marseilles are doing the same. Romanians are adept at housebreaking, stealing luxury cars, credit card forgery and the white slave trade with young girls tricked into leaving their homeland, or kidnapped, and forced into prostitution in Spain. The Bulgarians, Serbs and Kosovar Albanians are similarly employed.

The Colombian cocaine cartels are also well represented, now concentrating on the Costa after striking up deals with the Moroccan hashish barons who ship thousands of tons of cannabis across the Straits of Gibraltar every year. And there's plenty of associated mayhem: shootings, a turf war between British and Irish drug gangs that has already claimed several lives, and the deaths of innocents such as the French boy killed, along with a hairdresser, when men seeking revenge on an Algerian sprayed a salon with machine-gun fire.

The Langfords have set up a series of new companies, according to a friend, and had even opened a now-defunct restaurant, Krystal, in the port. "They have been importing a series of things, such as electric bikes and snakeboards," said the friend. "She has been involved in a children's craft shop called Rainbow and they are apparently importing Botox." A neighbour said: "He gave nobody the impression that he was having a hard time. He and his wife always looked impeccably turned out and worth a million dollars ... Debbie is a regular at the expensive shops in Puerto Banus and her hair is always immaculate."

But not everything in the marbled pool was cool, clear and shimmering. As Mark and Debbie whiled away the sunny weeks and months that grew into years, the stones of British bureaucracy were grinding. In December 2005, Debbie was ordered to pay nearly £400,000 to liquidators after they claimed she took dividends from the company improperly and breached her duty as a director. A month later, liquidators froze Mark Langford's assets; the Department of Trade and Industry were seeking to disqualify them from holding company directorships; and the pair were coming under increasing pressure to explain how the company folded owing around £100m just months after they helped themselves to millions in dividends. And then there was the tax inquiry.

Cracks started to appear in the life of the Langfords. In October 2006, their spread at North Rode, Cheshire was put on the market, asking £3.75m for the five-bedroom manor house with indoor pool, Jacuzzi, gym plus paddock and eight-acre lake. And, sources told local Spanish paper The Olive Press that the Langfords' Marbella villa was sold just before Christmas to Ukrainians or Russians. A friend of the couple said: "They have been desperate to sell it for well over a year. They actually took quite a hit at €1.8m." It also seems the Langfords have sold their yacht: a salesman for Ventura, which is handling the sale, said the yacht, priced at €1.75m, is "under offer".

Mark Langford has now been ordered to attend a bankruptcy hearing at the High Court in the Strand on 6 March. His wife has been served with a statutory demand for £2.4m and has been given 21 days to answer it. Funny thing, the compensation business. First the blame, and then the claim.

Additional research by Ciaran Prendeville