Brian Reader, the 76-year-old “mastermind” and “diamond geezer” convicted of the Hatton Garden safety deposit raid this week, was also part of the gang that committed Britain’s biggest bank raid some 44 years ago, The Independent can reveal.
Reader’s gang cleaned out 268 safety deposit boxes at Lloyds Bank on 188 Baker Street in London in September 1971 and got away with more than £8m at 1971 values – a bigger take than the Great Train Robbery a few years before. But he was never arrested.
The Baker Street Robbery has more recently become famous because of the 2008 film Bank Job which was based on the heist and also a Channel 5 documentary special at the end of last year. Until today, no one has publicly connected the 1971 raid with the 2015 Hatton Garden Safety Deposit thefts, but Reader was key to both.
The modus operandi of the two is strikingly similar and, 44 years on, Baker Street was being used by the “mastermind” Reader as the perfect template. Both were carried out over a weekend; both involved a gang tunnelling into a safety deposit vault using heavy equipment; and both hauls were enormous.
The Baker Street robbery was a cause célèbre at the time and it was said the gang left a cheeky message on the bank vault walls: “Let’s see how Sherlock Holmes solves this one”. A radio ham had picked up the gang’s walkie-talkie transmissions but the police failed to catch them red-handed. Only afterwards were three arrested and eventually jailed but only £250,000 of the proceeds were recovered.
Some years ago a well-established contact who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the underworld took me down to the basement of his Islington business premises, and whispered details of the raid including who the other members of the gang were. He admitted, as I had suspected, that he had been part of a loose federation of a dozen or so topclass burglars and robbers who were active in the Sixties and Seventies, stealing millions.
The Baker Street raid had been organised by five members of the group but only one of those was convicted – Tony Gavin, who was sentenced to 12 years. The other two men convicted only had minor roles in the raid. My contact revealed Reader was another in the gang as was Gavin’s usual partner in crime, Mickey “Skinny” Gervaise, a burglar alarm expert.
There was another associate known as “Little Legs” – a common nickname at the time for short men. The fourth uncaught man was a “shady character” dubbed “TH” who was connected to Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Alec Eist, my contact alleged.
Eist was by reputation the most corrupt Yard officer of the 1950s to mid-1970s which was no small achievement in such a packed field. He was a maverick and did not tend to work within any corrupt police “firm”. According to my contact, Eist was paid with some of the Baker Street proceeds to ensure some of the gang were never prosecuted – the other investigating officers were unaware of Eist’s corruption.
By 1976, under a cloud for multiple corruption allegations, Eist was returned to uniform and ordered to monitor parking wardens. He was acquitted in an unrelated corruption trial after his 1977 retirement and died some years later. According to documents in the possession of The Independent from the late 1970s Operation Countryman corruption inquiry into the Met, Eist was suspected of receiving jewellery stolen in the Baker Street raid.
Since my contact detailed the real Baker Street story, I have been able to confirm his claims with other underworld figures and documents in the National Archives that the police knew who else was involved in the raid. The gang was to take part in many further crimes.
In 1980, Gervaise was arrested by the Robber Squad and turned Queens’s Evidence becoming a “supergrass’. Among those he named were Reader, Gavin, “Little Legs” and my contact. Gervaise admitted to 31 offences of robbery, burglary and conspiracy. Turning Queen’s Evidence requires the accused to confess to all their crimes and name all their accomplices.
Gervaise did neither. Later, confronted by senior detectives, he was forced to admit he had taken part in the then biggest armed robbery in British criminal history – the 1980 robbery in which £3.4m worth of silver bullion was stolen from a security van on a A13 in east London.
However, Gervaise was sentenced to only six years, reduced for being a supergrass. Eist was among a dozen police officers named by Gervaise as corrupt. He said Eist had corrupt dealings with him prior to 1980.
In the witness box, Gervaise was cross-examined by a defence lawyer for one of those accused of the Silver Bullion robbery as to whether he had been on the Baker Street job. He denied it but admitted he knew the people who had been in the gang.
In 1982, Reader was put on trial for several robberies worth £1.2 m as a result of Gervaise’s word. I covered the case and frequently met Reader, who was on bail. Much to the astonishment of the court, Reader managed to abscond and left the UK. Little Legs had reacted more quickly and immediately left the country with his family when Gervaise was arrested and hid out, I was later told, in a resort in the Alps. He was visited by Reader who was also “on his toes” and accompanied by family members.
Reader’s extraordinary life of crime was to continue. By 1985, he was back in the UK incognito and was with the infamous criminal Kenny Noye the night that Noye stabbed PC Fordham, a surveillance officer, to death in his garden. PC Fordham was part of the Brinks Mat investigation team and Noye and Reader were later acquitted of his murder, having pleaded self defence.
But in July 1986, Reader was convicted of handling Brinks Mat gold and was sentenced to nine years. Little Legs remained a key suspect for disposing of the Brinks Mat gold and police surveillance logs identify him meeting Reader and others in Hatton Garden at the time.
Little Legs left the UK suddenly the day after PC Fordham’s death and was never arrested. That Little Legs was also suspected by the Yard of the Baker Street raid is suggested by documents recently released in the National Archives.
Reader’s lawyer said that his client vehemently denied being on the Baker Street raid. “This is clearly speculation and hearsay – and you will note that my client has never been arrested or questioned by the police regarding the incident, nor has he been subject to any investigation by them.”
Reader was one of Britain’s most persistent major criminals in modern history. But in April 2015, well into what should have been his retirement from crime, he tried to commit one robbery too many.
Paul Lashmar is head of journalism at the University of Sussex
Brian Reader: A life of crime
Brian Reader’s criminal record belies the fact he was one of Britain’s most serious criminals, an associate of the Adams crime family and a right-hand man to road-rage murderer and arch-criminal Kenny Noye.
The Independent has obtained Reader’s “rap sheet” from the Brinks Mat file in the National Archives. This gives the impression of a small-time criminal with occasional appearances in court. It starts in 1950 with the 11-year-old Reader guilty breaking into five shops, for which he was given a 12-month conditional discharge. Over the next 20 years you can see that Reader had turned his hand to what would become his specialisms of burglary and handling stolen property.
Over the years I have been given an insight into Reader’s career development. By the late 1960s he was working with a flexible group of Britain’s top robbers and burglars. This team were responsible for dozens of major burglaries and robberies netting millions of pounds. They were not interested in people’s houses – they cleared out warehouses and jewellery workshops – often around Hatton Garden.
Criminals who were active at this time have told me that he was good at disposing of stolen property and had contacts for getting rid of stolen jewellery among Hatton Garden’s less honest dealers.
Reader avoided more convictions by going “on his toes” – disappearing abroad whenever the police were getting too close. He did this after the Baker Street Robbery in 1971 and then again when he absconded from trial in 1982. He watched his children learn to ski in the Meribel resort and visited Venice. These were the days before extradition agreements.
In 1986 Reader’s rap sheet acquired a new entry for a nine-year sentence on two counts over handling the ingots from the £26m Brinks Mat robbery. This week a conviction for masterminding Britain’s biggest ever burglary will be added.