Millionaire 'issued warning before murdering partner'

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The Independent Online

The property magnate Nicholas van Hoogstraten issued a sinister warning to the son of a business partner shortly before arranging to have his father killed, it was claimed yesterday.

Mr van Hoogstraten, one of Britain's wealthiest men with an estimated fortune of £200m, had become embroiled in an escalating court battle with Mohammed Sabir Raja, a former associate who had accused him of fraud.

An Old Bailey jury was told yesterday that Mr van Hoogstraten, 57, reacted by saying to Mr Raja's son Amjad: "Your Dad is a maggot. He does not know what I am. We pick thorns who are a pain and we break them."

On 2 July 1999, Mr Raja, 62, opened his door to two men, and was stabbed five times and shot in the face. His grandsons, who were upstairs when they heard the bang of a sawn-off shotgun, descended to find their grandfather clutching his bloodstained chest. "These are van Hoogstraten's men. They have hit me. They have hit me," he allegedly said.

According to David Waters QC, for the prosecution, the murder was carried out by David Croke, 59, of East Moulsecoomb, Brighton, and Robert Knapp, 55, of Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, in a contract killing arranged by the multi-millionaire.

All three defendants deny murder, while Mr van Hoogstraten, of Framfield, Sussex, has also pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to murder.

The murder, the prosecution explained, had stemmed from a business deal which had turned sour and ended up in court. The two men's paths had crossed in the late 1980s when the "very much more successful" Mr van Hoogstraten lent Mr Raja large sums of money to buy property.

The terms of the deal were that the property magnate would retain deeds of the buildings and collect rents until Mr Raja had repaid the money. But, Mr Waters explained: "In 1993, there was a dispute as to how much money Raja owed."

He initially asked to see the accounts but later, in 1994, brought proceedings against Mr van Hoogstraten, alleging breach of contract.

"But between 1998 and 1999, the stakes were raised, first by Mr Raja. He applied to the court to amend the claim to include a more serious allegation, that Mr van Hoogstraten had been guilty of fraud," Mr Waters added.

Attempting to settle their differences, Mr Raja sent Mr van Hoogstraten "craven, fawning and ultra-respectful" letters. But in April 1999, Mr Raja was given leave to amend his allegation to fraud, claiming the millionaire had conspired to deprive him of interests in, or income from, properties. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

Mr Waters said Mr Raja had increased the danger to himself by accusing Mr van Hoogstraten of fraud.

Convinced he would win the case, Mr Raja was nevertheless fearful of his opponent, and told his grandson Rizvan in the spring of that year to check the windows before answering the door at his home in Sutton, Surrey. "On another occasion he told his family to take care," Mr Waters explained.

Mr Waters said Mr van Hoogstraten was heard to say that if he had dirty work to do he would use "Bob". Entries in his diary listed loans totalling £7,000 to "Bob", who Mr van Hoogstraten allegedly accepted was Mr Knapp.

Mr Waters said: "You will have to decide whether they were loans, or payment for getting rid of that thorn."

The case continues.