Cops and ex-robbers on Hatton Garden heist: 'This is no bunch of mugs'
Robbery of safe deposit boxes in the heart of London’s diamond quarter over Easter was reminiscent of an earlier age of crime. A week later there are few clues about who did it, how they evaded security or what was taken. The Guardian speaks to ex-criminals, clients and former police officers for their assessment
For many years after the second world war, George “Taters” Chatham was Britain’s busiest jewel thief. His most spectacular plunder was that of the Duke of Wellington’s diamond-encrusted sword from the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1948. Chatham always enjoyed reading about his exploits in the papers and would later admit to having been particularly chuffed when he would learn from the Times or the Daily Telegraph that one of his solo thefts, for which he would have needed only a screwdriver and a bit of wire, was undoubtedly the work of “an international crime gang”.
Chatham died in 1997 so at least he has a solid alibi for the theft of tens of millions of pounds’ worth of jewellery – and who knows what else – from the safety deposit boxes of Hatton Garden over the Easter weekend. But he would probably have enjoyed all the cheerful speculation as to the who and how of the crime, not to mention the where-the-hell regarding the location of all the stolen goods.
Someone well placed to ponder those questions is Jason Coghlan, once a very busy armed robber but now the owner and operator of a Malaga-based outfit called JaCogLaw, which represents and advises those who have fallen foul of the law in Spain and Thailand.
“I would not be surprised if the men behind the raid were from eastern Europe because that’s where all of the best thieves come from these days,” he said. “I would be equally unsurprised to find out that the loot had very quickly found its way out of the United Kingdom and into Europe for disbursement to more friendly places to wash such hot gems and cash, which is very likely to be reinvested into the narcotics industry, because that provides a pension for villains to live comfortably off for life, rather than a potential headache hidden some place that it might be discovered.”
He reckons that what has been stolen is unlikely to resurface in Britain. “People walking into a bank with a substantial amount of cash to deposit in the UK will find themselves answering questions from the police very shortly after filling out their deposit slip,” said Coghlan, whose own previous exploits are shortly to be the subject of a film. “Whereas taking bags full of cash into financial institutions in Thailand will manifest in being offered a comfortable seat and a cup of tea.”
One former armed robber from south London has his own theory as to why the theft has attracted such attention and speculation. “It’s gone back to the old days, hasn’t it?” he said. “No one’s been injured. No one’s been shot. Everybody’s happy because everybody’s skint at the moment and they reckon – rightly or wrongly – that whoever’s lost something can afford it.
“Who’s done it? Well, whoever it is has got very some good inside information about the alarm not working and they’ve obviously done their homework. They knew the layout and they must have known that Hatton Garden is full of CCTV cameras so they’ll have all been in disguise. Maybe they have military training but only certain people would have the balls – the audacity – to pull off something like that.”
Another former robber said the stolen goods would already be at their destination. “This is no bunch of mugs. They’re never going to be nicking this stuff without it having a place to go to already arranged.”
As for getting it out of the country these days: “It’s a doddle. The same people who import drugs and weapons into Britain will be able to take anything out in the other direction. It won’t be in a box in the back of a van, it’ll be mixed up with something like a furniture assignment and I’d be surprised if it’s not out of Britain already. And it will have all been split up, they won’t have all their eggs in one basket.”
One of the reasons for the fascination with the theft is that it seems so improbable, more Ocean’s Eleven or League of Gentlemen than Crimewatch. It also looks like a throwback to the days of the ODC – the “ordinary decent criminal” – who did not beat his victim’s face to a pulp and was not a terrorist or a paedophile or a rapist.
Old-fashioned bank robberies and breakins declined – as security improved and supergrasses were increasingly used – from 847 nationally in 1992 to108 in 2012. In London the numbers fell from 291 to 26 in the same period. This type of acquisitive crime has largely been replaced by cyber-thefts, which are less risky to carry out but less cinematic than drilling your way through two metres of steel door and rifling through 70 boxes of diamonds, gold and watches.
Two of the most outlandish robberies of recent times – the thwarted attempt to steal from the De Beers diamond exhibition at the Millennium Dome and escape down the Thames in a speedboat in 2000, and the £53m Securitas depot robbery in Tonbridge, Kent, in 2006 – resulted in the arrests of the people involved within hours or days of the crime. Some of those involved are still behind bars. The clock is now ticking on those who have got away – so far – with the contents of whatever was in those Hatton Garden safe deposit boxes.
No doubt whoever was involved is even now scanning the newspapers and websites to see whether they’re being described as Serbian ex-soldiers, ruthless Russian gangsters, old-school Londoners, a mysterious Panama hat-wearing “King of Diamonds” or that elusive “international crime gang”, and wondering whether their haul is really worth the £200m figure being tossed around at the moment.
Still, at least we can assume that this time something more than a screwdriver, a bit of wire and one agile bloke called George was involved.
Hatton Garden, the home of London’s jewellery trade, does not boast about its wealth. It lacks the polished glamour of Bond Street, the easy luxury of Knightsbridge. The people who work here – jewellers, dealers of precious stones, craftsmen – are mainly traders. But the product they deal in is diamonds, and security is everything.
So at the start of Easter and Passover, many of those with workshops and offices perched above the jewellers that line this stretch of the capital made the short walk to Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd.
The vast majority of the security boxes raided during the Easter weekend heist are likely to belong to traders, people like Batcha Hussein, a 45-year-old small gold dealer who has worked in Hatton Garden for more than two decades and was storing around £15,000 worth of gold coins, having run out of space in his small safe. “We really thought it was the safest place in Hatton
Garden,” he said. “We only recently came to know that it’s been robbed before.”
Vaults are secretive, discreet establishments, and clients have not relished being in the spotlight. Most of the depositors who have darted anxiously in and out of the black door at number 88-90 over the past few days refused to give their names, fearful of becoming a future target for thieves. “People don’t declare what they put in their boxes to stop this kind of thing from happening,” said one jeweller. “We don’t want to be attacked. This is a dangerous business we’re in.”
More established jewellers said they had their own extensive security systems, including state-of-the-art safes, CCTV systems and alarms. “You don’t want to be walking on the street with our goods,” said one. “You’re a marked man if you do that.”
Some clients admitted they had no insurance, either because the contents of the box could change weekly, or because pieces belonged to clients, or because they believed the items were safe. “I’m 56 now, imagine me trying to get a job after I’ve lost my entire livelihood,” said one. “It’s impossible, all the jobs go to the young people.”
Not all boxes in the vault were kept for business. One woman wracked with anxiety explained that she had kept her late mother’s jewellery in her deposit box. “I couldn’t afford to insure it, I couldn’t afford to wear it – that’s why I kept it there. I thought it was safe,” she said. “They were my mother’s jewels, I had taken every precaution.”
London has around 20 such vaults, from Southall businesses that guard the wedding jewellery of Asian families, to the vault at Harrods which has a lengthy waiting list of wealthy clients looking to store priceless works of art and antiquity.
Clients pay a relatively small annual fee – around £300 for a medium-sized box at Hatton Garden – and must give their name, address and identification. But there is no requirement to state what is in the box, and private rooms without cameras are provided for clients to open their property, giving rise to speculation that owners can keep anything from piles of cash to firearms. In one of the most colourful heist stories – the Baker Street “walkie talkie robbery” of 1971 – it was claimed the thieves had stolen compromising pictures of Princess Margaret, although they have never emerged.
“When you go down into a vault it really is just like a James Bond movie,” said Neil Duttson, a private diamond dealer who travels with his own bodyguard while carrying expensive gems. “It is a secure steel vault – a room lined with hundreds of boxes. People can keep absolutely anything: it could be a new Rolex, it could be a family heirloom, but for most around here it will be the tools of their business.”
Clients are varied, according Séamus Fahy, director of Merrion Vaults in Dublin. “You’ll get ordinary people keeping a bit of cash, jewellery, the title deeds to their homes,” he said. “We do have clients who if they are going out for dinner will come to the facility and put on a necklace, and then come and bring it back the next day.”
High-value customers are increasingly using vaults because they fear aggravated burglary in their own homes, he added. “Thieves want rich people to be there when they break in. They put on the kettle and tell their victims that before it boils they want to know where the safe is. They are becoming more and more sophisticated, so if you have anything worth stealing, it’s worth it.”
A video of his facility shows a client using a personalised fob and code through two doors to gain access to a reception where staff behind bulletproof glass identify clients as they give their biometric data to enter the vault. “Even if you penetrated the outer wall, which you couldn’t, there are laser beams, motion sensors – if anyone tried to break in, an armed response would be on its way within minutes,” he said.
As forensic teams continue to sift through the chaotic scene of debris, discarded documents and empty boxes, some traders who have built their lives and careers in Hatton Garden are still waiting to discover whether they are among the 70 to have lost property.
“I know a couple of people who kept their retirement plan down there,” said a woman waiting to find out the fate of her mother’s jewellery. “If people think it’s only the rich who are hit by this, they are wrong.”
The hunt for the gang that carried out last weekend’s robbery could hinge on forensics, the provenance of tools used to smash through a two-metre-thick wall and open boxes, and mistakes – or even betrayal – by junior members of the gang.
Detectives investigating the heist are waiting for the results of a battery of forensic tests, hoping that the gang left DNA traces, fingerprints and even footprints in the dust and rubble created as they drilled through the reinforced concrete wall.
“The forensic option is the best way of getting a successful conclusion,” said Nigel Mawer, former head of economic and specialist crime at Scotland Yard. Clues from equipment left at the scene would also be a key feature of the investigation, he added.
The gang clambered down the lift shaft to reach the basement and used a £3,500 diamond-tipped tool to bore several holes through two metres of concrete encasing the vault. They used angle grinders and crowbars to open 70 boxes.
The officer leading the investigation, DCI Paul Johnson, told reporters: “The vault is covered in dust and debris and the floor is strewn with discarded safety deposit boxes and numerous power tools, including an angle grinder, concrete drills and crowbars.” Detectives are tracing where the power tools were bought or hired from, though some of the serial numbers have been scratched off.
Another possibility for tracking down the perpetrators could be members of the gang “turning” for reward money. Mawer said some junior members may have been paid a fee, with bigger fish getting a share of the spoils. “The bigger the job, the more it unravels. The more people involved, the more prospect there is of people falling out, especially if big money is involved,” he said.