Fugitive in England's biggest heist may be ex-policeman

The entrance to the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit bank, where four ageing thieves stole US$20 million (S$28 million) in gold, jewellery and gems over the Easter weekend last year.
The entrance to the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit bank, where four ageing thieves stole US$20 million (S$28 million) in gold, jewellery and gems over the Easter weekend last year.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

LONDON • He has been variously called "Basil" or "the ghost", a mystery man with red hair and a lanky frame who appears to have played a crucial role in the largest burglary in England's history before disappearing.

Over the Easter weekend last year, when four ageing thieves stole US$20 million (S$28 million) in gold, jewellery and gems from the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit bank in central London, a video camera recorded the man, about 1.8m tall and wearing a cap.

The police suspect that he opened a fire-escape door that allowed the rest of the gang to enter the building, and that he knew the door codes and sought to disable the alarm protecting the safe deposit boxes.

Now, the mystery of Basil's identity has taken a twist after one of the four ringleaders of the theft, Daniel Jones, 60, wrote a letter to Sky News saying that Basil is a former police officer who was involved in private security.

"Basil was the brains, as I was recruited by him," Jones wrote in the letter, published this week, from Belmarsh prison in south-east London, where he is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty. "He let me in on the night of the burglary, he hid keys and codes throughout the building."

Jones said he had come to Basil's attention through a fellow police officer after being arrested in connection with a similar theft on Bond Street in central London in 2010. He claimed he did not know Basil's true identity, and said he would not reveal it even if he did.

The burglary at Hatton Garden, led by the four white-haired thieves who were hoping to fatten their pensions, has captivated Britons and drawn headlines around the world.

In April last year, Jones; John "Kenny" Collins, 75; Terry Perkins, 67; and the gang's elder statesman, Brian Reader, 76, committed what they hoped would be one last career-topping heist.

After sliding down a lift shaft at 88-90 Hatton Garden in London's diamond district, they used power drills to bore a hole through a reinforced concrete wall. Then they ransacked 73 of more than 900 safe deposit boxes, taking jewellery, gold, cash and precious stones.

The heist has attracted particular notice because of the ages of the men, who proved to be ill- equipped for the digital age. The operation was meticulously plotted with the help of the book "Forensics for Dummies". But their ignorance of modern-day police techniques contributed to their undoing. The men continued to use their cellphones even after the theft, helping the police to trace them.

The four ringleaders are in jail, awaiting sentencing in March. Last month, three other men were convicted of being involved in the burglary.

All the while, the police said they had been unable to locate or identify Basil, whose red hair may have been a wig, prosecutors said.

On Tuesday, Scotland Yard reiterated that there was a reward of £20,000 (S$40,500) for information leading to Basil's arrest.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'Fugitive in England's biggest heist may be ex-policeman'. Print Edition | Subscribe