The Heist Of The Century: How The Brinks-Mat Robbery Has Been A Curse To All Those Involved
November 1983, a robbery took place at the Heathrow International Trading Estate. A record £26 million (approximately £86 million today) worth of gold bullion, diamonds, and cash was stolen from a warehouse. The team of robbers consisted of 6 armed people from South London.
The bullion was the property of Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd – which collapsed the following year after making large loans to frauds and insolvent firms.
At 6.30 am on 26 November 1983, the South London gang, headed by Brian Robinson and Mickey McAvoy, broke into the Brinks Mat warehouse at Heathrow Airport, expecting to make off with about £3 million in cash. Inside help was provided by Anthony Black, a Brinks Mat security guard who happened to be living with Brian Robinson’s sister at the time. Black’s information gave the gang quick access to the site, where they overpowered the guards and encouraged them to provide the combination to the safe, by pouring petrol over them and threatening to set them alight. Black’s information also assisted with the disarming of a vast array of electronic security systems and, when the safe was finally opened, the expected piles of easily transported cash turned out to be 6,800 gold bars divided into 76 cases, as well as a stash of £100,000 worth of cut and uncut diamonds, all bound for the Far East. It quickly became apparent that the transport of many tonnes of gold would be challenging, and the quick 'smash and grab' became a protracted operation, as several members of the gang were sent to seek sturdier transport.
The robbers used the warehouse’s forklift to load the gold into a van, taking almost 2 hours to clear the safe. By 8:15 AM they left the warehouse, and the alarm was raised by a guard at 8:30 AM.
2 days after the robbery, a couple saw a hot crucible smouldering on a neighbour’s property near Bath, Somerset. Suspecting it might be linked to the bullion robbery, they called the police. The police arrived, but they said it was just beyond their jurisdiction and said they would pass the information on. The couple were never asked to give a statement to the police or give evidence in court. No explanation has been given for the police's failure to follow up immediately on the tip-off.
It took over a year for the residence to be raided. The smelter was located, and John Palmer – a local jeweller and bullion dealer, was arrested. In court, Palmer said he was unaware the gold was linked to the robbery and he was cleared of all charges.
Scotland Yard Flying Squad Chief Commander Frank Cater was appointed to lead the hunt for the thieves. Given the boldness and highly skilled nature of the operation, the police were quickly able to narrow down the list of potential suspects to McAvoy and Robinson, who had not been particularly secretive about recruiting participants for a rumoured 'inside job' that they had planned. Robinson, whose nickname was 'The Colonel', was already well known to the police, while McAvoy was considered to be one of South London's most prolific armed robbers. Quickly realising that the sheer knowledge available to the gang pointed to an insider participant, the police soon came across Anthony Black, who had been late to work on the day of the robbery and who had missed the entire heist.
The connection to Robinson’s sister led to a swift confession by Black, who gave up the names of the newly wealthy McAvoy and Robinson. Neither McAvoy nor Robinson helped themselves by 'laying low'. Within weeks of the heist, both moved from humble South London council houses to a grand estate in Kent, paid for in cash. Rumours that McAvoy had bought two Rottweiler dogs to protect his mansion and named them 'Brinks' and 'Mat', did not win him any awards for subtlety.
One of the robbers – named Brian Robinson, was caught after security guard Black gave his name to the investigators. He was arrested in December 1983. As it turned out, Robinson was Black’s brother-in-law. Scotland Yard quickly discovered the family connection and Black confessed to aiding and abetting the team, providing them with a key to the main door, and giving them details of security measures.
Another of the robbers, named Micky 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 movement of large amounts of money through a Bristol bank was noticed by the Bank of England, so the authorities were alerted.
Noye was placed under police surveillance. In 1985 he killed a police officer after he had discovered him in his garden. At the resulting trial, the jury found him not guilty. McAvoy was eventually sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for armed robbery. Black was sentenced to 6 years. 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 7 years before being released. George Francis was 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 – essentially making him solely responsible for the entire sum stolen. He was released from prison in 2000.
However, In 1996, Noye murdered a motorist named Stephen Cameron during a road rage incident. Arrested in Spain and extradited, he was convicted of Cameron’s murder in 2000, and received a life sentence
Much of the stolen gold has never been recovered and the other 4 robbers were never convicted. In 1996, about half of the gold – the portion which had been smelted – was suspected to have found its way back into the legitimate gold market. Some have claimed that anyone wearing gold jewellery bought in the UK after 1983 is probably wearing Brink’s-Mat.
Interestingly, less than 4 weeks after the robbery, police in Austria arrested five men at a Vienna hotel. They recovered ten bullion bars bearing the refiner’s mark and serial numbers of bars stolen in the robbery.
According to the police, the bars were gold-coated tungsten counterfeits, and therefore could not be the stolen gold bars. He said that the arrested men planned to fraudulently claim they were 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.
A person named Gordon Parry laundered large amounts of cash from the robbery after the disposal of the gold according to the Panama Papers – which show an offshore financial intermediary firm in Jersey named Centre Services requested Mossack Fonseca set up a Panamanian company 1 year after the Heathrow raid, on behalf of an unnamed client. Under Parry’s direction, millions of pounds were put through the resulting company (called Feberion) – and other front companies, via banks in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Jersey and the Isle of Man.
2 nominee directors were appointed to Feberion, and the company then issued 2 bearer shares. Parry used the offshore firms and recycled the funds – said to have amounted to £10.7 million – through land in London Docklands, buildings that used to form part of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a farmhouse for McAvoy’s girlfriend and a large home for himself and his family. The Metropolitan Police raided the offices of Centre Services in late 1986 in cooperation with the Jersey authorities, seizing papers and the 2 Feberion bearer shares.
The “Curse of Brink’s-Mat” refers to the early deaths of many of those allegedly involved – all of whom were murdered.
In 1990, the former treasurer of the Great Train Robbery, Charlie Wilson, had moved to Marbella, Spain – where he was suspected of being involved in drug smuggling. Expecting to launder some of the proceeds from the Brink’s-Mat robbery, he ended up losing the investors £3 million. In April, 1990, Wilson was shot dead.
In December 1998, jeweller Solly Nahome was shot dead outside his home.
In 2001, Brian Perry was shot dead.
In 2003, George Francis was shot dead by John O’Flynn.
In 2015, John “Goldfinger” Palmer was shot dead.
In total, roughly 20 people who were involved with this case have been killed. The majority of the looted gold has never been recovered, and likely never will be. 4 of the robbers haven’t been identified, much less charged for their involvement. Because of these facts, this robbery has been referred to as the ‘crime of the century' by many.