Wanted Briton takes a hike (over the Alps) to avoid tax bill

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The Independent Online

Faced with the prospect of extradition, a long stretch in jail and financial ruin, a man accused of being one of Britain's biggest tax-dodgers took the easy option – he legged it.

Or, more accurately, Ian Leaf skipped house arrest, took a train from Rome to the Swiss border, hired a guide, and hiked over the Alps to the safety of Switzerland. The multimillionaire British businessman left behind him a frustrated team of officers from the Inland Revenue and an angry Italian judge.

His extraordinary escape follows an investigation and lengthy legal battle by the Inland Revenue to catch a man they believe owes £70m in tax.

The Revenue has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to bring the 41-year-old property tycoon and former chartered accountant back to Britain to face fraud charges.

Mr Leaf, formerly from north London, was detained on 14 September last year when he flew into Rome from Geneva, where he lives, on a privately chartered jet with his wife, Caroline, and his mother-in-law.

He spent the next nine months in the Regina Coeli jail near Rome, sharing a cell with murderers, armed robbers and violent mafiosi, but was released in May on bail on the condition that he stayed at a house in the outskirts of the Italian capital and promised not to leave the country.

He was due to hear whether he was to be extradited to Britain in July but, two weeks before the Italian courts finally ruled that he should be forcibly sent to England, he decided to return to the safety of his adopted country, Switzerland, which does not have an extradition treaty with the UK.

News of his earlier departure has not previously been made public but, on 28 June, he got on to a train in Rome and headed for the Swiss border where he picked up a guide and hitched a lift – ironically from an off-duty Italian tax inspector – to the foothills of the Alps. It took him a few hours to walk into Switzerland and sanctuary.

Speaking a few weeks before his escape, Mr Leaf had told of how he was forced to swap his luxury 10-bedroom mansion overlooking Lake Geneva for a "filthy cramped cell".

He must have cut an unlikely figure in the converted monastery that houses about 1,200 prisoners, most of whom are hardened Italian criminals.

None of the inmates knew anything about the English prisoner and his lavish home with its swimming pool, tennis court and paddock. He also has a chalet in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier and a fleet of cars.

During his imprisonment he suffered at the hands of fellow inmates. "I was attacked, both physically and mentally," he said. "It was a regular event, but you couldn't say anything because of omerta, which is the Mafia code of silence – if you speak out you get beaten up more.

"They thought I was unusual, but I behaved correctly and generally kept my head down.

"There were up to nine people in a cell in triple bunks. It was unbelievably filthy. They had people with Aids in the cell. Everyone was suffering from something. It was not hygienic."

No one spoke English and during his eight months incarceration, Mr Leaf learnt Italian.

He also passed the time reading philosophy and theology, playing the prison organ, and training the jail choir.

"People wanted to talk to me but there was a limit to how much I could say," he said.

If he had been free to speak he might have told prisoners that he faced 22 charges, including conspiracy to defraud, obtaining money by deception and false accounting.

He could even have gone into the details of how he came under investigation by the Inland Revenue in October 1997 when they raided the premises of more than 100 firms in London and seized documents.

And he could have said that he is alleged to have become involved in a number of company purchase schemes from 1991 to 1997. The alleged fraud involves buying cut-price companies that owed millions of pounds in tax and then selling them off at a profit without paying the inherited tax debt, evading the bill by using false documents and bogus accounting.

He might even have revealed that, if convicted, he could be jailed for up to eight years.

Mr Leaf's incarceration began when he was detained at Ciampino airport after officials noticed his passport had expired nine days earlier. After making inquiries, they discovered he was wanted in Britain for questioning about alleged tax fraud.

When the courts agreed to his release under an informal house arrest arrangement, Mr Leaf said he would dedicate himself to fighting his case. In response to the question of whether he would skip bail, he replied: "Liberty is very sweet. There are no guards so I could go back to Switzerland if I wanted to. It would not take 24 hours to get back there. But I haven't gone. I'm still here."

When pressed about whether he would remain in Italy until the judge had made his final decision, he simply said: "I'm here for now."

But not any more. His solicitor said Mr Leaf's change of heart was prompted by a "pressing social engagement" in Switzerland. He had simply decided not to return.

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