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The Over-the-Hill Gang

How a ragtag crew of ageing criminals pulled off one of the most daring robberies in British history.

The Over-the-Hill Gang

The audacious April 2015 ransacking of safe-deposit boxes in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district, was epic. So much cash, jewellery and other valuables had been taken that the loot had been hauled away in giant wheelie bins. London’s newspapers were filled with artists’ renderings of the heist, featuring hard-bodied burglars in black turtlenecks doing superhuman things. Experts insisted that the heist was the work of a foreign team of commando–like professionals, likely from the infamous Pink Panthers, an international gang of master jewellery thieves.

British crime aficionados saw the operation as a throwback to the meticulously planned, supremely executed jewellery heists of yesteryear, which had inspired such classic crime movies as To Catch a Thief and Topkapi.

But when arrests were made the following month, Great Britain collectively gasped.

The Hatton Garden heist, it turned out, had been the work of a ragtag group of superannuated criminals. “Run? They can barely walk,” Danny Jones wrote to a reporter from prison. “One has cancer, he’s 76; another, a heart condition, 68. Another, 75, can’t remember his name. Sixty-year-old with two new hips and knees.”

Yet they had defied age, physical infirmities, burglar alarms and even Scotland Yard to power their way through walls of concrete and solid steel and haul away a prize estimated at more than £14 million, at least £10.3 million of which is still missing.

The Villains

Retirement is a bitch. Your wife has passed away. Most of your mates are in exile, prison or the grave. You skulk around your run-down mansion in the suburbs of London, infuriating your neighbours by running a used-car dealership out of your home, and “hobbling over to the news agent,” as one neighbour put it, for the daily papers to read about younger men doing what you used to.

This was the life of Brian Reader at 76. “He ain’t got no friends no more,” a colleague would say of him. “Sitting down there in the café, talks about all their yesterdays,” said another.

And yet for practically his whole life Reader had exasperated Scotland Yard. First arrested for breaking and entering at age 11, he was allegedly part of the ‘Millionaire Moles’ gang, which burrowed underground to loot safe-deposit boxes in a Lloyds bank vault in London in 1971, a haul worth more than £41 million today.

Reader had generally managed to walk away until the Brink’s-Mat Job in 1983, involving the theft of what today would be worth more than £83 million in gold bullion from the high-security warehouse at Heathrow Airport. Reader was a ‘soldier’ on that job, moving the gold between a ‘fence’ and dealers. He was found guilty of conspiracy for handling stolen goods and sentenced to nine years.

When he got out of prison, it seemed he had put the life of crime behind him. But two decades later, suffering from prostate cancer and other ailments, he decided to get back into the game with his biggest caper yet. Former Scotland Yard commander Peter Spindler, who oversaw the London police in investigating the Hatton Garden heist, told me that Reader was called ‘the Guv’nor’, the leader in British gangster parlance, who, possibly with associates, “set it up, enlisted the others, and called the job on, to the best of our understanding.”

Number two on the heist was Terry Perkins, 67, suffering from diabetes and other health issues, living in a little house in Enfield. He was a ghost to the neighbours, who had no idea he had once been a ringleader in the largest cash robbery in British history at that time: the 1983 Security Express Job, in which a gang raided a cash depot in East London and stole the equivalent of £19 million today.

Perkins was sentenced to 22 years but escaped when he was close to release and went on the run, returning to prison in 2011 to serve out the rest of his sentence.

Extraordinarily fit, Daniel Jones, 58, was, according to a friend, a ‘Walter Mitty’ type, who read palms and ran marathons when he wasn’t in and out of prison. His passions were the army and crime, and his rap sheet was filled with convictions. “Everyone who knew Danny would say he was mad,” said Carl Wood, another member of the Hatton Garden team. “He would go to bed in his mother’s dressing gown with a fez on.”

Carl Wood, 58, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2002, after he and his accomplices were recorded planning to torture a money-launderer who owed them £600,000.

In debt at the time of the Hatton Garden heist, Wood claimed to have been living on disability payments after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammation of the intestines. He may have been selected for the Hatton Garden job for his slim physique, which enabled him to crawl into tight spaces.

Driver and lookout man John ‘Kenny’ Collins, 74, was a ‘dodgy’ but elegant figure in the streets of London with his beloved Staffordshire bull terrier, Dempsey. He was a walking pawnshop. “He’d buy cars, expensive watches … and sell it back to you later,” said a friend. His rap sheet, stretching back to the 1950s, included convictions for robbery and burglary. Diabetes had exiled him into semi-retirement.

Two peripheral members of the team, Hugh Doyle, 48, and William Lincoln, 59, stored and helped move the stolen treasure.

One unidentified member of the team still at large is Basil, as he was called by the other thieves and the police. He is believed to be the inside man, who knew the building, disarmed the alarms and let the others in. There is a £20,000 reward for a tip that leads to his arrest.

The Job

The vault, belonging to the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd (HGSD), was located in the basement at 88–90 Hatton Garden. The building is seven stories tall and has around 60 tenants, most of them jewellers. The vault’s half-metre-wide impenetrable bomb-and-burglar-proof door – operated by a combination that has to be worked by at least two people – opened up a labyrinth of safes.

The wooden main door to the building and a glass door behind it – both left unlocked during the day – lead to an unstaffed lobby. The lift in the lobby is disabled so it can’t descend lower than the ground floor. Beside the lift is a door that leads to a flight of stairs to the basement. This door is also unlocked during business hours. At the bottom of the stairs is another wooden door, behind which is a sliding iron gate, which forms an air lock with a second sliding gate. To open the first gate you need a four-digit security code; a security guard opens the second gate to let you out the other side. Inside the air lock are locked shutters, behind which are the doors, no longer used, to the lift shaft.

There is a much easier way to get to the vault area: a street-level fire exit with an outside lock on Greville Street, from which iron stairs go down to a courtyard adjoining 88–90’s basement. From the inside, the Greville Street door is locked merely with a hand-operated bolt – no key is required to open it. The Hatton Garden basement is accessed from the courtyard by a door with two sliding-bolt locks, and that door leads to the HGSD basement foyer. At the far side of the basement foyer is a white door, behind which is the HGSD air lock.

Strange things began happening in the days leading up to the heist. A local diamond company worker was visiting a firm in 88-90 and had to wait what seemed like forever for the lift. When it arrived, she found an ageing repairman inside, wearing blue coveralls and surrounded by tools and building gear. A pair of blue coveralls was later found at the home of Terry Perkins, who had apparently been casing the building.

Then came the fire. On Wednesday, April 1, a gas main ruptured and slowly leaked gas into the tunnels that house London’s electrical and telecommunications cable networks. A spark in an electrical-junction box ignited the gas, causing smoke to billow from manhole covers and flames to shoot up from the ground. Power failed. Gas supplies ceased. Thousands of people in the area were evacuated.

It would take firefighters and police officers nearly two days to bring the situation under control. This was a fortuitous break for the thieves, entangling the cops and setting off dozens of false alarms.

The next day, the Thursday before Easter weekend, there was practically a line of people to deposit their valuables at HGSD. “Four carats, five carats, all shades, brilliant-cut, heart-shaped – a magnificent collection!” one jeweller told me, describing what he had stored in his box that weekend.

The jewellers believed the vault to be safe. The owners were apparently so confident of its construction that they gave their security guards weekends off.

At 9.19pm that Thursday, April 2, the staff locked up the vault for the long weekend. Minutes later, a thin man dressed in a blue jacket with a red wig and a flat cap passed in front of a CCTV camera on Greville Street. A black bag on his shoulder hid his face. This was Basil. He evidently had keys with which he entered 88–90 through the front door and made his way to the basement fire door. He disabled the alarms and the cameras inside the building, but made two crucial mistakes: he neglected to disable a CCTV camera in the fire-exit passage and another on the second floor.

Shortly after Basil appeared, a CCTV camera showed a white van pulling up to the building’s fire-escape entrance and several men unloading tools, bags and two wheelie bins, in full view of the people strolling along the dark streets. These men – Brian Reader, Terry Perkins and Danny Jones – were disguised as municipal workers, wearing reflective yellow vests, hard hats and white surgical masks.

Basil opened the fire-escape door from within, and the men unloaded their gear. Kenny Collins entered an office building across the street, where he would serve as a lookout, but, according to one of his accomplices, he “sat up there and fell asleep.”

It was to be a three-day job, during which they planned to loot all 996 safe-deposit boxes in the vault, as evidenced by diabetic Terry Perkins’s bringing three days’ worth of insulin. “If I don’t take the insulin for three days you’d a had to carry me out in a wheelie bin,” Perkins later said.

Once inside the 88–90 fire-door corridor, the men could not breach the white door that led to the basement foyer. But they had planned a more ingenious way to get in – one that presupposed deep inside knowledge of the building’s layout. They walked up to the second floor and called the lift, which they disabled, then returned to the ground floor, and pried open the lift doors to the open shaft. Then one or more of them dropped down the three to four metres to the basement, pried open the flimsy steel shutter covering the disused basement lift door and entered the air lock.

They cut the telephone cable and broke off the GPS aerial so that the alarm’s signal range was compromised – but not quite enough. A short time later a text alert was sent to the monitoring company, which contacted HGSD co-owner Alok Bavishi.

Kelvin Stockwell, chief custodian guard of the vault, arrived shortly after 1am to find no sign of forced entry on the front door to the building or the fire exit. Nothing seemed amiss. “It’s all locked up,” Stockwell told Bavishi.

Police also dismissed the incident, concluding that “no police response was deemed to be required,” according to police reports.

Meanwhile, the team pulled the second airlock iron gate open. They were in!

The safe-deposit boxes lay within a Chubb safe embedded in a half-metre-thick concrete wall. Anchoring a 35-kg Hilti DD350 diamond-tipped coring drill to the floor and wall, and connecting it to a water hose for cooling and reducing the amount of dust, the team began boring through the concrete. The DD350 made only a quiet hum as it breached the wall.

Within two and a half hours, three overlapping circular holes had been cut through the concrete. The thieves stared through the holes not into the diamond-filled vault but at a wall of solid steel: the rear of a cabinet of safe-deposit boxes. Unmovable. Bolted to the ceiling and floor.

They had a Clarke pump and hose with a 10-tonne hydraulic ram, strong enough to force the doors off almost anything. But the pump broke. The steel cabinet stood firm.

Around 8am on Friday, April 3, they temporarily surrendered, leaving the vault – but in a move that shocked the others, the ringleader, Brian Reader, left for good. He was convinced that to return would mean certain capture.

Jones and Collins didn’t walk away, though. Instead they went shopping. At Machine Mart in the London suburb of Twickenham, Jones paid £96 for another fire-red Clarke pump ram and hose, using the name ‘V. Jones’ and his street address on the receipt.

They returned around 10pm on April 4. Finding the fire-escape door locked, Carl Wood followed Reader’s lead and quit. After Basil let them in again, Collins returned to his post as lookout. Back at the vault, Perkins, Basil and Jones anchored the new pump and hose to the wall opposite the vault, and 10 tonnes of pressure went to work.

Then Perkins exclaimed, “We’re in! We’re in!” They could see the bounty beckoning. Now at least one of them had to slither through the overlapping concrete holes, a tiny opening measuring 25 by 45 centimetres across.

Inside the vault, fitness enthusiast Danny Jones and the slim Basil were busting open the old but still-sturdy metal deposit boxes with sledgehammers, crowbars and angle grinders. Since they were now two burglars short, they were able to ransack only 73 of the 996 boxes, but it was enough: a vast array of loose diamonds and other stones, jewellery and cash. There was also gold and platinum bullion.

Around 5.45am on April 5, the job was done: empty metal boxes were strewn across the floor, along with the drill and broken pump, but no DNA evidence, thanks to the thieves’ careful study of Forensics for Dummies.

Collins drove the burglars away in the white van. Within 36 hours, the loot was divided up among them.

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“I think we’ve been burgled,” Kelvin Stockwell recalled being told by his associate guard on Tuesday morning, when he arrived at work.

“I went downstairs, and I saw the top lock of the door was missing,” Stockwell told me. “I called the police. Fifteen, 20 minutes later they turned up. We went inside. It was like a bomb had hit the place.”

By 10am the street in front of the vault was filled with emotional deposit box holders, who were barred from entering the building. The media soon arrived, along with insurance adjusters. Then came the excruciating wait as the police sorted through the rubble. The calls from police to the victims began on Thursday.

Some couldn’t say with certainty what was in their box, and others wouldn’t say. Did their boxes contain stolen goods and cash that hadn’t been declared to the tax authorities? “That is why we will never know how much was actually stolen – because safety-deposit boxes are used for a number of reasons, and one of them is anonymity,” said former senior detective Barry Phillips.

As the heist dominated the UK media, the public seemed to be rooting for the daring thieves, while blaming the victims and the police, who had failed to respond to the burglar alarm.

For six weeks after, the burglars revelled in the rewards and relived the crime. Old age and infirmity be damned – they were thieves again, back in the Castle pub, where they had spent three years planning the heist.

The Investigation

The Flying Squad, the elite investigative unit within London’s Metropolitan Police department, was formed in 1919 and named for its ability to ‘fly’ across London without regard to districts. They have solved some of the biggest and most famous cases in Britain.

I met the two lead detectives in the Hatton Garden case at New Scotland Yard, in central London: Paul Johnson, 54, a tall, chiselled Clint Eastwood type, and his bright and intense deputy, Jamie Day, 43. Both wore business suits and ties bearing the squad’s descending-eagle logo.

The team on the Hatton Garden heist consisted of most of the 50 or so officers in the Flying Squad’s western unit. “The Hatton Garden case is not usually what the Flying Squad would take, per se,” said Johnson, because no-one was injured and none of the perpetrators appeared to have carried guns. “But obviously there was the magnitude of it and the detail that the gang had gone to to get themselves in. Clearly, we’d have to take it.”

The Hatton Garden investigative teams were overseen by Peter Spindler, who, like the thieves, was approaching retirement. Working around the clock, officers and detectives deciphered more than 350 pieces of evidence. Most important, Spindler said, they “trawled” through days of CCTV footage collected from the 120-plus cameras in and around Hatton Garden.

Early on in the investigation, a young member of the CCTV team spotted the Flying Squad’s first big break: a white Mercedes E200 with a black roof and alloy rims had passed through the Hatton Garden area multiple times prior to the Easter weekend.

The [car] belonged to an ex-con: Kenny Collins.

Using the easily traceable Mercedes was a major screw-up. Through automatic number-plate recognition the police tracked the car’s movements from Collins’s home to the store where Danny Jones bought the replacement hydraulic pump.

Just as foolhardy, the burglars, while using walkie-talkies during the heist, used their own mobile phones before and after the burglary. “Researching mobile phones and call-data analysis, we started building a picture,” recalled Spindler. It was more than enough to get special approval to plant listening devices in Kenny Collins’s Mercedes and in Terry Perkins’s Citroën Saxo.

The thieves were trailed by detectives, observed by lip-readers, bugged in their cars and videotaped in their favourite bars. The Flying Squad was astounded by what they heard. “The biggest robbery in the world … we was on,” said Terry Perkins in just one of many incriminating statements.

A month after the heist, the Flying Squad dispatched an operative with a hidden video camera to the Castle pub, where Reader sat drinking with Perkins and Collins. In the middle of the pub, Perkins pantomimed for Reader the moment that Danny Jones and his 10-tonne hydraulic pump knocked over the massive wall of safe-deposit boxes. “Boom!” Perkins exclaimed, according to a lip-reader, who deciphered the conversation.

Damning as the recordings were, it wasn’t enough to arrest.

“You’ve still got to work your way through everything else and make sure you’ve got enough to corroborate what they’re saying,” said Johnson. “If you don’t, they would have an option of saying that ‘we’re just a bunch of elderly fantasists who were talking a lot of old nonsense.’”

They had to catch them with the goods.

Once the heat died down, the thieves planned to sell their haul for cash, provide for family members and fund their pensions. But by this time other criminals seemed to know about the heist. It was imperative that they consolidate everything and sell it off fast.

Their mistake was letting the increasingly careless Kenny Collins handle the logistics. The day after the burglary, Collins gave most of his loot for safekeeping to ‘Billy the Fish’ Lincoln, the brother of Collins’s long-time girlfriend.

At 60, Lincoln suffered from incontinence, sleep apnoea and a recent double hip replacement. He duped his nephew into storing three bags of the stolen goods at his house and transporting them to a handover point. Even more reckless was Collins’s choice of the handover point: a pub car park in the borough of Enfield, under CCTV surveillance.

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At 9.44am on Tuesday, May 19, in full view of the CCTV camera and with the Flying Squad monitoring their every move, the burglars transferred three canvas holdalls filled with jewels from the taxi to Collins’s Mercedes. The police already knew the location because Perkins and Jones had previously revealed the address in conversations recorded in their car.

Almost six weeks after the heist, the Flying Squad was ready to descend. Just after 10am, they stormed 12 addresses simultaneously. From Enfield to Bethnal Green to the suburb of Dartford, more than 200 officers, some in riot gear, battered through doors and dragged out the suspected burglars and their accomplices. Lincoln was stopped in his car. Reader was escorted from his old mansion “a little unsteady on his legs and clutching his heart,” said a neighbour.

On Sterling Road, Terry Perkins, Danny Jones and Kenny Collins were at the dining room table, on which a smelter had been set up to melt multi-million British pounds-worth of precious metals, when officers burst through the front door.

“Jones tried to run out the back door, but only made it a few yards into the garden,” recalled Jamie Day.

Presented with the recordings, the CCTV footage and other digital evidence, Reader, Perkins, Jones and Collins felt they had no choice but to plead guilty. The others charged in the heist – Carl Wood, Hugh Doyle and William Lincoln – were found guilty at trial in January.

The seven were sentenced in March 2016 to a total of 34 years imprisonment, most receiving sentences of between six and seven years, with the exception of Doyle, who received a suspended sentence.

Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd went into liquidation in September 2015, unable to recover from its damaged reputation.

The mysterious Basil is still at large, as is more than two-thirds of the haul, worth over £10 million.

The thieves had disabled the CCTV cameras and stolen their hard drives inside the actual building and its basement vault. “What they forgot, or didn’t know,” said the prosecutor, “was that one little camera in that walkway outside the back of one jeweller was still working and recording what they were doing.”

Said Spindler, “They were analog criminals operating in a digital world, and no match for digital detectives.”

FROM VANITY FAIR (MARCH 2016) © 2014 BY MARK SEAL, WWW.VANITYFAIR.COM



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