The Brink's-MAT robbery at London’s Heathrow Airport in November 1983 saw a record £26 million worth of gold bullion, diamonds and cash stolen from a warehouse. The bullion was the property of Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd, which collapsed the following year, after making large loans to fraudsters and insolvent firms. Many of the gang were convicted, but the gold has never been recovered. Lloyd’s of London paid out for the losses. Several murders have been linked to the case.
The Brink's-MAT robbery occurred early on 26 November 1983 when six robbers broke into the Brink's-MAT warehouse at Heathrow Airport, London. At the time, it was described as "the crime of the century".
The gang gained entry to the warehouse from security guard Anthony Black. The robbers thought they were going to steal £3 million in cash. However, when they arrived, they found three tonnes of gold bullion and stole £26 million (£75 million in today's money) worth of gold, diamonds and cash. Once inside, they poured petrol over staff and threatened them with a lit match if they did not reveal the combination numbers of the vault.
Two days after the robbery, a couple saw a white-hot crucible operating in a garden hut at a neighbour's property near Bath. Suspecting it may be linked to the bullion robbery, they immediately informed police. The police arrived, and were shown the hut, but they said it was just beyond their area and said they would pass the information on to the police responsible for that area. The couple were never asked to give a statement to police nor give evidence in court. No explanation has been given for the police failure to follow up immediately on the tip-off. Only 14 months later were the premises raided, the smelter found, and occupier John Palmer, a local jeweller and bullion dealer, arrested. In court, Palmer said he was unaware the gold was linked to the robbery and was cleared of all charges. For this incident, Palmer acquired the soubriquet of "Goldfinger".
One of the robbers, Brian Robinson, was caught after security guard insider Black, his brother-in-law, passed his name to investigating officers. He was arrested in December 1983.
Scotland Yard quickly discovered the family connection and Black confessed to aiding and abetting the raiders, providing them with a key to the main door, and giving them details of security measures. Tried at the Old Bailey in December 1984, Micky McAvoy was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for armed robbery, Black was sentenced to six years.
Before his conviction, McAvoy had entrusted part of his share to associates Brian Perry and George Francis. Perry recruited Kenneth Noye, who was an expert in his field, to dispose of the gold. Noye melted down the bullion and recast it for sale, mixing in copper coins to disguise the source. However, the sudden movements of large amounts of money through a Bristol bank came to the notice of the Bank of England, who informed the police. Noye was placed under police surveillance and in January 1985 killed a police officer, DC John Fordham, whom he had discovered in his garden. At the resulting trial during the following December, the jury found him not guilty on the grounds of self-defence. In 1986, Noye was found guilty of conspiracy to handle the Brink's-MAT gold, fined £500,000, plus £200,000 costs, and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He served seven years before being released in 1994. Francis was later murdered and McAvoy was thought to be a suspect.
Attempts by McAvoy to strike a deal to give back his share of the money in exchange for a reduced sentence failed, as by then the money had vanished. In January 1995, the High Court ordered McAvoy to make a payment of £27,488,299, making him responsible for the entire sum stolen. He was released from prison in 2000.
Much of the 31⁄2 tonnes of stolen gold has never been recovered and the other four robbers were never convicted. In 1996 about half of the gold, the portion which had been smelted, was thought to have found its way back into the legitimate gold market, including the reserves of the true owners, Johnson Matthey. According to the BBC, some have claimed that anyone wearing gold jewellery bought in the UK after 1983 is probably wearing Brink's-MAT.
Recovered bars made of tungsten
On 21 December 1983, less than four weeks after the robbery, police in Austria arrested five men, four Italians and an Austrian, at a Vienna hotel. Police also recovered ten bullion bars bearing the refiner's mark and serial numbers of bars stolen in the Brink's-MAT robbery.
According to the police spokesman, the bars were gold-coated tungsten counterfeits, and therefore couldn't actually be Johnson Matthey's stolen gold bars. The spokesman explained that the arrested men planned to pass them off to others by fraudulently claiming that they were in fact from the Heathrow robbery. No explanation was given as to how the counterfeiters obtained the unpublished bar serial numbers, nor the likely benefit of counterfeiting stolen property in this way.
The owner of the stolen bullion was Johnson Matthey. The insurers, a syndicate at Lloyd's of London paid out for the declared loss of the robbery, even though the bars seized in Vienna were tungsten.
Collapse of Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd
On 30 September 1984, less than a year after the Brink's-MAT robbery, the banking and gold-trading arm of Johnson Matthey (Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd) collapsed and was taken over by the Bank of England to protect the integrity of the London gold markets. Losses amounted to over $300m. The bank had made very large loans to fraudsters and insolvent businesses over several years, and had serious and unexplained gaps in records. The fraud squad was called in to investigate the bank and certain customers.
In 1990, the former treasurer of the Great Train Robbery, Charles Frederick "Charlie" Wilson, had moved to Marbella, Spain, where he was suspected to be involved in drug smuggling. Engaged to launder some of the proceeds from the Brink's-MAT robbery, he lost the investors £3 million. On 23 April 1990, a young British man knocked on the front door of his hacienda north of Marbella, and shot dead Wilson and his pet Husky dog, before riding off down the hill on a yellow bicycle. Over the next three years, four more shootings were connected to the Brink's-Mat raid. In 2007, supergrass Michael Michael claimed to know who the killer of Wilson was, but police made no arrest.
In 1992 a movie called Fool's Gold based on the robbery was released with McAvoy portrayed by Sean Bean. A documentary was broadcast on Channel 4 in November 2003 on the events of the raid. A subsequent documentary has also been aired in 2010 on the Crime networks.
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