Nabbed! Investigators turn tables on criminals by seizing £100m

Once they provided a tidy little nest egg on exit from jail. Now the villains' hoards are up for grabs by the authorities. By Paul Lashmar
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The Independent Online

Crime pays: every villain used to know that. Get banged up and you could still look forward to digging up the booty one day and living the high life, big house, flash car and drinks all round at the golf club. "An eight-stretch with £400k waiting means I'm earning £50K a year in the nick," said one armed robber. "All nice and tax-free."

But those days are gone. A new agency set up to recover the proceeds of crime is suddenly seizing the Roller in the front drive, the Tudorbethan mansion and even the racehorse in the paddock from outlaws who thought they had done their time and got away with their ill-gotten gains.

The Asset Recovery Agency has grabbed cash and property worth £100m in the past year, and shaken the criminal world to its core.

"The whole game has changed," one major underworld figure told The Independent on Sunday. "Out go the Rollers, the Mercs, the Ferraris and the big houses with shag-pile carpets. Flash your wealth around now and you are in trouble."

Others feel the same, he says. "A mate of mine said to me the other day, 'Its bollocks, I didn't get into villainy to drive round in a pissy Ford Fiesta'."

He would have been horrified to see a car-transporter drive slowly through the centre of Harrogate recently, carrying a Porsche and a Bentley Arnage worth £125,000 under a banner saying, "Taking the cash out of crime".

The cars had been taken from a fraudster by one of a network of law-enforcement teams set up to seize assets since the law was changed three years ago. The most prominent is the Asset Recovery Agency, whose progress was initially slowed by the need to establish its powers in the civil courts. Now it has carried out a swath of dramatic seizures across the country, exercising powers described by one senior police officer as "a revolution in criminal justice". Another calls the ability to seize assets the biggest breakthrough in crime-fighting since DNA.

Hundreds of cases are now going through the courts, and the agency is pursuing many more targets, ranging from burglars and benefit fraudsters to organised-crime bosses and violent paramilitary gangsters.

The most high-profile so far is Thomas "Slab" Murphy, the former IRA chief of staff now living on a farm in South Armagh, who is said to have acquired a £30m fortune from IRA activities including cross-border smuggling. In October, the ARA and police in riot gear raided offices in Manchester belonging to two men believed to be managing Murphy's finances.

Warrants had been issued by the High Court, and the agency says its investigation involves 250 properties worth £9m. The men firmly deny any connection with Thomas Murphy or any illegal assets and say they were managing properties for Murphy's brother Frank, a legitimate businessman. The ARA has had more immediate success against smaller-grade criminals, including Robert Woodstock, a man charged with living off immoral earnings. West Midlands police dropped the case against him after Woodstock allegedly intimidated a key witness into withdrawing her statement.

But an ARA investigation showed that Woodstock - a criminal with a long record - could not account for much of his income. In 2001, for example, he bought a £90,000 house in Wolverhampton with a £45,000 cash deposit although he had been drawing job-seekers' allowance from 1997 to 2000. The agency has won a High Court judgment to recover £35,000 of the "proceeds of crime" from Woodstock.

Jane Earl, the head of the ARA, describes Woodstock as a particularly nasty pimp, and says: "We have used our powers to make sure crime did not pay. Avoiding prosecution by intimidating witnesses so they do not testify in a criminal trial will not prevent ARA from recovering assets." But it is not all fast cars and big houses, she says. The agency is now looking after sheep and cows as well as thoroughbred horses. "You'd be surprised how many criminals invest their assets in agriculture."

Half the value of assets seized can be invested in fighting crime, and have so far paid for 88 more investigators. As the Woodstock case shows, the agency can get a court order to seize assets even when there is no criminal conviction, as long as it can show that they are the profits of crime.

The new powers were established by the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and the more recent Drug Trafficking Act. "Make no mistake, we are going after criminals' finance," Charles Clark, the Home Secretary, told a conference of financial investigators last month. "More than £185m has been recovered in the past three years. This Government has given law-enforcement and prosecution agencies a formidable array of new tools to tackle the challenge."

Assistant Chief Constable Nick Creedon, who leads on asset seizure for the Association of Chief Police Officers, says: "This is as significant a breakthrough as DNA, which is now an essential everyday part of policing. The same will be true of asset-seizure. Criminals will have to look over their shoulders the whole time."

The Drug Dealer: 'When he gets out of jail he will have nothing'

Lincoln White has been ordered to pay £3m of his profits from drug dealing or have six years added to his 25-year sentence. Police say White, 39, who lived in Dulwich, south-east London, was the largest importer, manufacturer and distributor of crack caught in the UK. They believe his empire had turned over £170m.

The 39-year-old Jamaican national was convicted in 2004 for having 10.9kg of crack.

DC Tony Doyle, of the National Crime Squad, says White kept a low profile in the UK. "He drove around in the Peugeot 106 and did not flash his money around."

But back in Jamaica for six months of the year, he lived the life of a millionaire with two properties in Montego Bay. Much of his wealth is in the "safe keeping" of friends and relatives. This can be seized if they cannot explain where they got money.

"The good thing about this legislation is that when White gets out he will have nothing," DC Doyle adds.

The Fraudster: 'Repay the £14m or serve three more years'

Frederick Clough has been ordered to repay the £14.2m he swindled from investors through his loans company, Versailles, by faking turnover and profits.

Clough, who is serving six years, faces a further three years if he does not pay, although investigators from the Serious Fraud Office and the London Regional Asset Recovery Team believe he probably squandered a lot on the high life.

He had spent huge sums on his former wives and girlfriends in countries including Nigeria, Belgium, Jersey and Ivory Coast.

The IRA Man: '£30m smuggler who farmed in South Armagh'

In October, the ARA and police raided domestic and business properties in Manchester linked with the businessmen Dermot Craven and Brian Pepper, who deny illegal activities.

The ARA says its investigation relates to 250 properties worth £9m, but has not confirmed it is searching for links with Thomas "Slab" Murphy, left, said to be IRA chief of staff. The South Armagh farmer is believed to have made £30m from crime, mainly smuggling. In 1998, he lost a libel case after The Sunday Times claimed he was involved in IRA bombing campaigns in Britain.