Jailed: the gangsters caught in the act of smashing into the Money Zone

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The Independent Online

A security van containing £10m in cash pulled out of a depot in central London at 6.45 on a dull February morning. Within minutes a gang of armed robbers put into place a daring plan that would leave a trail of burning vehicles in what detectives later described as a "scene of carnage".

The complexity and scale of the attempted robbery shocked Scotland Yard and sparked one of the biggest surveillance operations ever mounted. The failed heist in February 2000 would herald an even more audacious crime 10 months later – the attempted robbery of £200m worth of diamonds from the Millennium Dome.

The masterminds behind both jobs were the same men. The gang was eventually caught red-handed as they smashed their way into the exhibition centre in Greenwich, south east London, on board a mechanical digger.

Yesterday William Cockram, 49, from Catford, south east London, Robert Adams, 57, from north London, Aldo Ciarrocchi, 32 of Bermondsey, Kevin Meredith, 34, from Brighton, and their leader, Raymond Betson, 40, of Chatham, Kent were sentenced to a total of 66 years in prison. The four principal raiders were found guilty by an Old Bailey jury of conspiracy to rob the Dome. The fifth, Meredith, was given a five-year sentence for his role as a getaway driver aboard a speedboat.

During the security van heist three lorries were jack-knifed across either end of the Nine Elms Lane carriageway in Battersea, south London to block the Securicor vehicle. But the robbers were forced to abort the heist after failing to break open the van's doors. They set off incendiary bombs before fleeing across the Thames in a high-powered boat.

Scotland Yard's Flying Squad, who deal with armed robberies, immediately set up an investigation, codenamed "Magician". Officers then became involved in a surveillance operation on suspected stolen vehicles begun by Kent police in April last year. They believedthe vehicles could be linked to their gang.

On 25 August a man was followed from Kent to the Dome where he paid special attention to the jewellery exhibition in the Money Zone, which housed the flawless Millennium Star diamond and 11 blue diamonds owned by De Beers. "It was totally incredulous the Dome could be the location of the offence," said Detective Chief Superintendent Jon Shatford, the head of the Flying Squad at the time of the operation. "It was almost too incredible to be true."

On 1 September the police ran a check on a vehicle at the Dome's car park. To their amazement they discovered it belonged to Raymond Betson. Surveillance film showed Betson with a man called William Cockram, accompanying a woman with a child in a pram.

Betson, 40, and Cockram, 49, were considered among the most dangerous armed robbers in the country. The pair are believed to have been responsible for a series of raids involving many millions of pounds. Betson is also suspected of carrying out at least two contract killings.

Betson was the senior partner with Cockram his right-hand man. The two friends had grown up in the same street. Betson has 18 previous convictions mainly for dishonesty and theft while Cockram has 15 convictions for dishonesty, theft, car crimes and unlawful wounding. Both enjoyed what police described as a champagne lifestyle.

Undercover officers filmed the two men meeting Ado Ciarrocchi, 32, on the banks of the Thames opposite the Dome. Ciarrocchi was considered one of Cockram's family having dated his daughter for six years.

Two other professional criminals were recruited for the heist: Robert Adams, 57, a convicted cocaine smuggler who had served six years in jail for attempting to kill his wife, and Terence Millman, 56, who had a string of robbery convictions. For the planned escape across the Thames the gang enrolled 34-year-old Kevin Meredith, a skipper from Brighton.

The gang was seen taking a JCB mechanical digger to a coal yard in Plumstead about three miles from the Dome.

On 7 November the police watched as Meredith took a speedboat to the Isle of Dogs and launched it, while Betson set off from the coal yard aboard the digger, followed by a white transit van. As they approached the Dome detectives started evacuating the site. Undercover officers mingled with the remaining visitors and nearly 100 armed detectives were hidden nearby. Cockram, Adams, and Ciarrocchi switched from the van and got into the JCB cab alongside Betson. The unidentified van driver then drove away. He was never seen again.

Betson waited outside the Dome compound for a signal telling him the speedboat was ready. At about 9.30am he gave the command "attack, attack, attack". He crashed the digger through a metal gate, a set of double doors, and into the Dome. Dressed in gas masks and body armour the raiders leapt out of the cab. They were armed with bottles of ammonia and stink bombs. Ciarrocchi let off a blue smoke grenade as Cockram ran into the vault and, using a gunpowder-powered nail gun, punctured a small hole in the three-quarter-inch thick reinforced glass surrounding the Millennium Star diamond. He was quickly followed by Adams who used a sledgehammer to smash a larger hole in the glass. It took the gang 27 seconds to break in.

Outside about 40 armed officers overpowered Betson and Ciarrocchi. Officers stormed into the vault and forced Adams and Cockram at gunpoint to lie face down on the floor. As officers handcuffed Adams and lead the bewildered robber away he said: "I was 12 inches from pay day." But Adams was mistaken – De Beers had taken the precaution of replacing the diamonds with fakes.

Meredith was captured by officers in the speed boat at the Millennium pier. Millman was arrested in a van on the other side of the river. He would later die of cancer while on remand.

At court the four gang members who took part in the raid all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal but deny the more serious charge of conspiracy to rob. In an attempt to suggest that no one was at risk of violence they claimed they were aided by a policeman who is married to the sister of Betson's girlfriend. Scotland Yard investigated PC Michael Waring but discovered he had reported his suspicions about Betson.

Betson and Cockram were jailed for 18 years each, Ciarrocchi and Adams received 15 years a piece, while Meredith got a five-year sentence for conspiracy to steal.

Judge Michael Coombe told the men: "You played for very high stakes and you must have known perfectly well what the penalty would be if your enterprise did not succeed."

The gang had planned to sell the diamonds to members of the Russian mafia. Their payment is unknown, but it would have run into many millions.