A police raid on three safe deposit vaults in salubrious London neighbourhoods has uncovered an "Aladdin's cave of criminality" including ivory smuggling, child pornography and murder that has sparked more than 1,000 inquiries around the world, Scotland Yard has said.
Safe Deposit Centres Limited was targeted in simultaneous raids last summer and 3,554 security boxes were seized from its premises in Hampstead, Park Lane and Edgware as part of a crackdown on money-laundering by organised crime gangs across the world.
But the extent to which the buildings were also being used as a left-luggage facility by the full spectrum of the underworld was revealed yesterday when detectives released a list of discoveries that included £35m in cash, six suitcases of powdered gold, class A drugs, including ketamine, and several hand-guns. One box contained a hammer, chisel and pipe wrench which had lain untouched for a decade.
Officers said Operation Rize, which has so far resulted in more than 40 arrests and 11 prosecutions, had succeeded in dealing a significant blow to organised criminals by seizing assets that they assumed were safe from confiscation. Among the sums of cash seized was £2.5m in various currencies belonging to a Luxembourg national suspected of money-laundering for European crime syndicates, and a £100,000 "nest egg" for a serving prisoner which he had planned to collect after release.
Although many deposit boxes, which ranged from shoebox-sized containers to walk-in vaults, belonged to innocent individuals, police said more than half were now thought to be connected to criminal activity, including prostitution and people-trafficking.
Some 700 box-holders, whose assets include £15m of the seized cash, have been referred to HM Revenue and Customs to be investigated for tax evasion, along with a number of "ghosts", individuals who have evaded the tax system entirely. A further £1.8m has been confiscated or declared forfeit by courts.
Detective Chief Inspector Mark Ponting, from the Yard's economic and specialist crime unit, said: "We have uncovered an Aladdin's cave of criminality that has disrupted organised crime around the world. Some of the organised criminal networks that placed their funds in the premises never expected to have them recovered by the police. Crime can be punished by a prison sentence or community payback, but it can also be punished in other ways. The criminals who have gathered these funds are having them taken away from them. We are taking these assets and putting them back into the public purse."
Det Ch Insp Ponting added that a vast range of additional suspected crimes was being investigated by his team of 60 full-time officers and other forces around Britain and abroad, including possession of child pornography, benefit fraud, passport forgery, burglary and the illegal importation of ivory, after two elephant tusks worth £40,000 were found at the home of a Nigerian national suspected of laundering money left at the Hampstead centre.
Among the most perplexing of the 1,000 "spin-off" investigations concerns the box with a hammer, chisel and pipe-wrench in a carrier bag, not visited by its untraceable owner for 10 years. Det Ch Insp Ponting said: "There is a clearly a story behind these items; to retain them with a secure facility heightens the suspicion."
The raids in June last year resulted in the arrest of three people associated with Safe Deposit Centres Limited, who are on police bail until May. Officers said the operation was driven by intelligence suggesting the company was being used by criminals.
Cash, guns, ivory ... What the police found
Park Lane box number 3172: Held a forged $4.95m United States bond which police believe was to be used in a huge fraud and was being stored in the centre to underline its authenticity.
Edgware box number 17: Contained £950,000 in cash belonging to a taxi industry figure suspected of evading tax on earnings.
Hampstead box 1621: Held $228,291 and €5,000 in cash, and $15,900 dollars in travellers' cheques belonging to a Nigerian national. Subsequent searches of his home found two illegally smuggled elephant tusks.
Hampstead box 4830: Contained a hammer, chisel and pipe wrench wrapped in cloth and stored in a plastic bag. No one was recorded as having accessed the box since it was opened in 1999.
Edgware box 4019: Contained 17 passports and matching cheque books that were associated with fraud.
Hampstead box 1653: Drugs and a Glock 9mm handgun belonging to gangster Leon Gavin, sentenced last week to five years' imprisonment for drug and firearms offences.