A Brief History
On November 26, 1983, London’s Heathrow Airport was the scene of one of the most spectacular heists in crime history, an incident referred to as the “Brink’s-Mat Robbery.” In the warehouse section of the airport called the Heathrow International Trading Estate, thieves made off with gold bullion, cash and diamonds, a haul worth about £87 million (in today’s pounds). Although 2 of the 6 robbers were caught, little of the gold was ever recovered, leaving the esteemed insurance company, Lloyds of London to foot the bill for the insurance payout.
The enormity and brazenness of the crime are reminiscent of Hollywood movies such as Heist (2001), The Italian Job (1969 and 2003) and The Bank Job (2008). After getting into the warehouse with the aid of a complicit guard, the robbers poured gasoline (petrol) on staff members and threatened to light them up if they did not comply with orders and give up the combination to the safe. They gave up the combination, big surprise! The thieves expected a large haul of about £3.2 million in cash but were shocked to find the enormous amount of 3 metric tons of gold bars in the safe! Also for the taking was the expected cash, as well as numerous diamonds. The total haul of over £26 million (in those days’ money) was a record for loot at the time. (The US dollar equivalent in 2019 dollars is $112.2 million.)
Things started unraveling for the robbers as things are prone to do, as robbers generally make some sort of mistake or another. Only 2 days after the robbery, people in the Bath, Somerset area noticed a neighbor outside in the garden tending to a white hot crucible. Since it can be considered highly unusual for any suburban folk to be operating a crucible type furnace in their garden, the observant (nosy?) couple had the novel idea that those other folks might be up to something, and that something might be related to the theft of all that gold. The good citizens quickly called the police to inform on their neighbors, but incredibly the police that responded to the scene said the neighbor’s yard was “just beyond their jurisdiction” and called the police with jurisdiction over the subject locale! Police mis-handling of the report also included a failure to take statements from the witnesses and never having the witnesses testify in court. The so called appropriate police agency did not immediately respond to check out the report, and 14 months passed before the coppers finally searched the property, finding a smelter (crucible) and the owner of the property was a gold bullion dealer and jeweler. The property owner, a man named Palmer, admitted melting down a large quantity of gold, but claimed he did not know the precious metal was stolen. He was never charged with abetting the crime, although we wonder about his sincerity in saying he did not suspect the gold was stolen, especially since the enormous and highly publicized crime had just occurred.
(Note: We take a time out here to speculate about whether or not the reporting witness couple ever considered just marching over next door and demanding a slice of the loot in exchange for their silence. Not that such extortion would be a good thing, but just sayin’…)
Eventually it occurred to the police that an insider might be involved, and the guard that had given entry to the warehouse to the robbers was interrogated. He gave up one of the robbers, his own brother-in-law. The not so secure security guard, Anthony Black, was later convicted of his role in the robbery. The plot unraveled as the cops started putting things together, with all the robberies identified. One robber, Brian Perry, recruited another crook to assist with the ongoing effort to unload the gold and that man, Kenneth Noye, ended up killing a police officer that had him under surveillance in 1985, though Noye was found not guilty at trial. Robber Micky McAvoy was convicted of his role in the robbery in 1984 and given a 25 year sentence, and Noye was later convicted of attempting to liquidate the stolen gold in 1986 and given a 14 year sentence, but he only served half of that. Releasing Noye early was apparently a mistake, because in 1996 he murdered another motorist during a road rage incident. Robber George Francis, never convicted of the robbery, was murdered years later, reputedly by McAvoy. Robbers Brian Perry and Brian Anderson were not convicted.
The intrigue continued as evidence of a scam involving the creation of gold covered tungsten bars purportedly stolen in the Brinks-Mat Heist was discovered in Austria and in 2016 the disclosure of over 11 million documents known as the Panama Papers revealed some new details about the laundering of the money from the heist. Murder and conspiracy theories also follow the tale of the Brinks-Mat Robbery, including the involvement of the infamous Krays, a notorious crime family of England, and the murders of several people allegedly involved with the crime, namely Brian Perry, George Francis, John “Goldfinger” Palmer, jeweler Solly Nahome, Gilbert Wynter (associate of Nahome that went missing), and even Charlie Wilson, a veteran of the “Great Train Robbery” that had been involved in laundering the proceeds of the Brinks-Mat Robbery.
The infamous robbery and aftermath have been the subject of several books, songs, television and movie shows, and even a radio serial broadcast. Although the axiom that “Crime does not pay” may be quite true for those involved that ended up dead or in prison, one heck of a lot of money and gold ended up in the hands of people were never punished or paid a price for their ill gotten gains. It would certainly seem that as long as there is money, gold, jewels, and other valuables, there will be burglars and robbers ready to try to take them!
Question for students (and subscribers): What famous or infamous heist do you believe is the most Hollywood-like? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Clarkson, Wensley. The Curse of Brink’s-Mat: Twenty-Five Years of Murder and Mayhem – The Inside Story of the 20th Century’s Most Lucrative Armed Robbery. Quercus Publishing, 2012.
Hogg, Andrew. Bullion Brinks Mat the Story of Britains Biggest Gold Robbery. Penguin USA, 1988.
Pearson, Will. Death Warrant: Kenneth Noye, the Brink’s-Mat Robbery And The Gold. Orion, 2007.