Basingstoke's medallion man goes on trial for attempt to assassinate Pablo Escobar

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The Independent US

When David Tomkins appears before a court in Miami next week it could bring to a close an astonishing story which pitted the medallion man from Basingstoke in a deadly battle against the world's most feared drugs baron.

When David Tomkins appears before a court in Miami next week it could bring to a close an astonishing story which pitted the medallion man from Basingstoke in a deadly battle against the world's most feared drugs baron.

Tomkins, 63, tried on at least two occasions, both of them equally spectacular, far-fetched and ill-fated, to assassinate Pablo Escobar, the former head of the Medellin gang. On the last occasion in 1991 he was entrapped by United States customs investigators while attempting to buy a Vietnam-era Cessna A-37 Dragonfly fighter jet in which he planned to attack the Colombian prison where Escobar was held. He was tipped off about the sting and, according to his family, returned to live a quiet life in his native Hampshire.

According to reports this week, Tomkins has decided to admit his part in the assassination plot in return for a reduced sentence. But his lawyer Hector Flores says his decision is not set in stone. "This thing isn't over until it's over," said Mr Flores yesterday. Tomkins may still choose to go down fighting and maintain his claim that he has turned his back on violence for the past 12 years.

The case has put the US authorities in a difficult position. For years Escobar was public enemy No 1 in Washington. He was eventually killed in December 1993, by Colombian security forces after a 16-month joint operation with the American government.

Mr Flores says the government has been at best half-hearted in its prosecution of the case. Tomkins was only arrested in September 2003 when he arrived in the US to train as a security guard for Iraq.

The Briton, who still sports his trademark gold chain and sunglasses, claims he had been invited to America by an associate in SkyLink, Air and Logistic Support (USA) Inc, one of the major US companies which along with Halliburton, has been charged by President George Bush with reconstructing Iraq. SkyLink, based in Washington, is rebuilding Iraq's airports.

Tomkins had enrolled for a chemical weapons training course at Fort Bliss, Texas. He was detained and arrested on his arrival at the George Bush International Airport in Houston and has been in jail ever since. It was nearly a decade since he was indicted by a US court in connection with the attempt to kill Escobar.

Mr Flores said: "The government has been lax in their prosecution of this case. It never sought the assistance of the British Government in extraditing him to the United States. It never sought an international warrant even though he travelled all over Europe during this time period. The government sat on their hands and did nothing in terms of processing him."

Such is their resolve now that the government even successfully appealed against bail for Tomkins after it was granted at a court in Houston.

Tomkins' decision to take on the US authorities is typical of a man who, friends say, is addicted to adventure and who has spent his life touring the world's trouble spots in search of excitement and money. In the 1960s he made a name for himself in Europe's criminal underworld as a career thief. A specialist safecracker, he is even said to have broken into the safe at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

But the life failed to satisfy his craving for danger and crucially his liking for the high life. In 1976 he signed up with the infamous mercenary leader Colonel Callan to fight in northern Angola. "It sounded like a good idea at the time ... the man who offered me the job could have said 'Mars' and I would have said 'yes'," he once said. Within 48 hours he was training in the African bush with a gun in his hand.

Tomkins built a reputation as an explosives expert and on his return to Britain used the contacts he had made to carve out a career in the arms trade. But the offers kept coming. He was asked to assemble a team to assassinate Idi Amin and to kill the president of Togo. Neither of which ever got off the ground. Crucially for the way he is viewed by the US now, he also fought in Afghanistan.

In 1988, as South America became the world's most violent place, Tomkins was asked to attack the headquarters of Farc, the left-wing Colombian guerrilla movement, in an operation allegedly funded by Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, head of the Cali gang. The operation came to nothing when promised weaponry failed to materialise.

But within a few months he was commissioned to kill Escobar. He planned an attack on the drug lord's stronghold at the Hacienda Napoles, east of Medellin. But again the mission was foiled. This time their helicopter flew into a mountainside, killing the pilot. Tomkins and his associate Peter McAleese, a former SAS officer, were forced to walk three days to safety through the Colombian jungle.

It was well known at the time that former SAS men were operating in Colombia. On 16 August, three days after the story broke, Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, a fierce opponent of the drug trade, was assassinated, some Colombian government sources say, by British mercenaries.

The final ill-fated mission to Colombia began three years later. According to US customs officials Tomkins was offered $10m for the hit. But his plan was again foiled after investigators in Puerto Rico got wind of the plot. As well as the A-37 fighter, for which he handed over $270,000, it is alleged he was also attempting to buy 500-pound bombs from El Salvador to use in the attack.

Tomkins evaded capture by the US authorities after a tip-off and fled Miami. In 1994 he was indicted before a federal court in Southern District of Florida for conspiring to illegally export arms. According to Michael Barcia of US Customs, Tomkins was a "key player ... in the ranks of international arms dealers."

He returned to Britain and the quiet life, or so his family claim. But he was unable to resist the call of adventure one more time. He is due to appear before US District Judge Adalberto Jordan on Tuesday. By accepting his responsibility for the crime, say US officials, he will avoid trial and have time off his sentence. His lawyer says the story is far from over.

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