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The True Story of the "Diamond Geezers" and the Record-Breaking $100 Million Hatton Garden Heist
Read by Wensley Clarkson
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The Hatton Garden Heist captured the British public’s imagination more than another other crime since The Great Train Robbery. It was supposed to make a fortune for a team of old time professional criminals. Their last hurrah. A final lucrative job that would send the old codgers off on happy retirements to the badlands of Spain and beyond. It seemed to be the stuff of legends. Tens of millions of dollars worth of valuables grabbed from safety deposit boxes in a vault beneath one of the most famous jewelry districts in the world.
But where did it all go wrong for this band of old time villains? And how did the gang’s bid to pull off the world’s biggest burglary turn into a deadly game of cat and mouse featuring the police and London’s most dangerous crime lords?
Nobody is better placed to reveal the full story of the Hatton Garden Heist than Britain’s best-connected true crime writer, Wensley Clarkson. Through his unparalleled contacts inside the criminal underworld, he’s finally able to reveal the astonishing details behind Britain’s biggest ever burglary.
Table of Contents
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THE SEXY BEASTS
"When you think about it we must have been crackers, we got to be stone crackers."
Terry Perkins, Hatton Garden gang member
The Friendly Face
The bandit is an outsider and a rebel, a poor man who refuses to accept the normal rules of poverty and establishes his freedom by means of the only resources within the reach of the poor, strength, bravery, cunning and determination. This draws him close to the poor; he is one of them. It sets him in opposition to the hierarchy of power, wealth and influence: he is not one of them.
E.J. Hobsbawm, author of Bandits
In the middle of a road on the boundary between London's Clerkenwell and Hatton Garden–in the place once known as Little Italy–is a manhole cover through which you can hear the sound of the River Fleet, which still flows beneath this part of the city. Warrior monks once had a wharf upon the Fleet where they moored their ships, returning weary from distant lands to tend verdant estates upon the hillsides descending to the river valley. In time, these religious communities gave way to Renaissance palaces, superseded by prisons for the unacceptable people and fine brick terraces for the artisans, all surrounded by squalor and thievery, as this fast expanding area overcame plagues and fires while the river delved through its midst.
This spider's web of subterranean streets and tunnels fifty feet beneath what today is Hatton Garden have provided criminals with an escape route for at least the past 500 years. Traders who work in the area often say they're amazed the whole place hasn't caved in from the weight of the gold and heavy metal above all these ancient, watery passageways honeycombing the ground beneath their feet.
Walk through the streets of Hatton Garden at any time of the day or night and you cannot fail to notice the history of this ancient district of London. Down the narrow alleyways and cobbled streets winding between the tall buildings strode many names from English history, including the most famous crime writer of all, Charles Dickens.
Around the corner from Hatton Garden itself is number 48 Doughty Street–once the London home of Dickens. His two eldest children were born here and it's where he wrote many of his most famous books, inspired by his real-life experiences in Hatton Garden, Bloomsbury and Holborn.
Fagin's Kitchen in Oliver Twist was located at number 8 Saffron Hill and owned in real-life by De Beers, until it was demolished to make way for an office block in the late 1980s. Dickens based the notorious Fagin on a man named Ikey Soloman, a well-known fence and criminal who ran a gang of pickpocketing children stealing for food, clothing and shelter.
Number 54 Hatton Garden was the police court house featured in Oliver Twist and presided over by lawmaker Mr. Fang, who in real life was the cold and calculating magistrate, Mr. A. S. Laing. Dickens used some clever subterfuge in order to meet the hated magistrate, which provoked such a violent outburst of anger from Laing that he was subsequently removed from his post. Dickens also frequently visited The One Tun pub in Saffron Hill and "converted" many of those real-life regulars into characters for his books.
But you have to step back another 300 years to find out why this area was called Hatton Garden in the first place. Just off Ely Place is a narrow alleyway leading through to Hatton Garden known as Mitre Alley. Midway along this alley is a pub called the The Olde Mitre Tavern, built by Bishop Goodrich of Ely in 1546 to entertain his servants. It was constructed around a cherry tree and it's where Elizabeth I had secret trysts with her lover Sir Christopher Hatton before she gave him the land now known as Hatton Garden.
Hatton was a bit of a celebrity landowner back in those days, thanks in part to sponsoring Sir Francis Drake's around-the-world voyage. After his death and following the Great Fire of London in the 1660s, Hatton's family began building houses on what was then still known as Hatton Street. It would only be renamed Hatton Garden 200 years later.
But crime has always been in the heart and soul of Hatton Garden…
On a Sunday evening in December 1678, a Hatton Garden-based carpenter named Wartton, opened his front door to six armed men. They said they were looking for Catholics, but when he asked to see their warrant, one of them said there was no time to show him as "the Traytors might escape." After searching every room in the house, the gang of men declared: "It was money we came for, and money we will have." Then they opened Wartton's front door to "about half a score" of their accomplices, and warned the household there was no point making any fuss because others in the gang were outside watching the streets.
Wartton and his family were locked in a room while the thieves ripped through the house. The gang eventually made off with his daughter's rings (valued at £100) and 380 ounces of plate.
The following Tuesday a woman offered to sell "a considerable parcel of Plate" to a Hatton Garden trader and took him to a house in nearby Shoe Lane. But the trader had informed the authorities, who raided the house, arrested five men and found the stolen plate in the cellar. The thieves were dispatched to Newgate prison where one managed to escape dressed in woman's clothes, despite being weighed down with sixty-pound irons. The others were executed at Tyburn Gate.
Late in the eighteenth century, a Bedfordshire laborer named William Smith (just over five feet tall, with grey eyes and a "fresh complexion," according to the criminal register) was tried for a "singular and daring" robbery committed on a banker's clerk in Hatton Garden. By this time robberies in the area were so commonplace that the police virtually gave up patrolling the streets.
In November 1881, the Hatton Garden post office was robbed of a mailbag containing registered letters and packets, including a large consignment of diamonds destined for the continent. The value of goods stolen was estimated at £80,000, which is more than £60 million in today's currency.
At the end of the nineteenth century, De Beers chose to sell all its diamonds through Hatton Garden, creating a culture of related trades that persists to this day. As a result, it attracted a tight-knit community of Hasidic Jews, who were the master-craftsmen able to produce a wide range of jewelery.
Then in 1913 came the Hatton Garden pearl robbery. It set the scene for a century of hard-hitting crimes–high-profile thefts of large sums and valuables that required detailed planning and a team to carry them out. On this occasion, the target was "the most famous necklace of pearls in the world," valued by Lloyd's at £150,000. It had been sent from Paris to a Hatton Garden trader named Max Mayer, but when he opened the registered package, he found it contained eleven sugar lumps. The mastermind of this cunning plot was diamond merchant Joseph "Cammi" Grizzard, who was caught after a sting operation and given seven years penal servitude; shorter sentences in those days, but harsher regimes.
Until the Second World War, business in Hatton Garden was often conducted on the street, or in one of several local kosher cafes. Prices were usually agreed with a handshake and a cry of "Mazel." It wasn't until after the war that a plethora of jewelery shops opened in Hatton Garden, shifting the business away from manufacturing for the wholesale market toward the retail trade, especially for engagement and wedding rings. In all, at least 300 separate companies and sixty shops–many of them run by Orthodox Jews–emerged by the 1950s.
Back then, Hatton Garden's reputation was built around its dealers in precious stones, which were nearly always diamonds. So not surprisingly, security became of paramount importance to all local traders.
At the start of holidays such as Easter and Passover, many of those with workshops and offices perched above the jewelers that lined Hatton Garden itself made the short walk to 88–90 Hatton Garden, where a well-respected local company called the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Limited ran an underground vault from 1954. It had been specially constructed ten years earlier and provided metal boxes for traders to store their valuables in.
The company who owned the vault even persuaded BBC TV to film a news item after they took it over since it was the biggest and most unique vault in the country at that time. That black-and-white footage shows fashionable furniture in an office that led to the vault, which helped make the location look glamorous and, even more importantly, safe.
The vault soon proved extremely popular as many dealers preferred to keep their diamonds under lock and key when they were not around. The local underworld also got to hear about the vault. So it wasn't such a big surprise when–three years after that opening in 1954–a gang of three men attempted to break open the Hatton Garden vault. They failed and fled the building before anyone could catch them and the incident further reassured locals that the vault was the safest place to keep their valuables.
By this time, depositors regularly darted anxiously in through the back door of 88–90 Hatton Garden and down to the vault to make their deposits as discreetly as possible. Few declared even to the vault's owners what they put in the small brick-sized metal safety deposit boxes on the basis that loose lips sink ships.
But it was an open secret that not all the boxes in the underground vault of the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Limited contained "100 percent legal goods."
Clients paid a relatively small annual fee of less than £100 for a medium-sized box inside the vault. They had to give their name, address and identification. But there never has been any requirement to state what was in the box. Private rooms without CCTV cameras were provided for clients to open their property, giving rise to speculation that box owners were storing anything from piles of cash to firearms.
Customers later described going down into the vault in Hatton Garden as being like entering the secret world of a James Bond baddie. Some private diamond dealers would walk into the building with their own bodyguards while carrying expensive gems. And no one questioned the security of the vault.
One customer later explained: "It is a secure steel vault–a room lined with hundreds of boxes. People can keep absolutely anything there: it could be a new Rolex, it could be a family heirloom, but for most around here it will be the tools of their trade–diamonds."
Business was booming for the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit company in the 1950s. Clients were given a personalized fob and code to gain access through two doors to a reception where staff behind bulletproof glass identified clients as they gave their biometric data to enter the vault.
"Even if you penetrated the outer wall, which you couldn't, there were laser beams, motion sensors–if anyone tried to break in, an armed response was supposed to arrive within minutes," explained another former staff member.
In the dingy fluorescent light of the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit company offices, an attendant waited behind a barred window to deal with each customer, blissfully unaware that the vault continued to be of great interest to the wrong sort of people.
For only a short distance from this picturesque Olde Worlde corner of London and just across the nearby River Thames, was a veritable breeding ground for criminals, many of whom had always kept a close eye on Hatton Garden.
Brian Henry Reader–who would later be dubbed the mastermind of the Hatton Garden Job–was born in the riverside tenements of Deptford, in June 1939, just three months before the outbreak of the Second World War. He was the eldest child of Doris and Henry Reader, who'd married nine months earlier and went on to have another son Colin and daughters Doreen and Sharon. It's often been said Reader got his first lessons in crime from his father, a renowned "ducker and diver" who dealt in stolen goods.
Reader picked up twisted values as a young child during those war years, when few men were around and even less police, resulting in what can be described as a moral vacuum. Many associates and friends of some of the men who later became famous for the Hatton Garden Job said their childhoods were empty of family values because there simply were no complete families during the war.
In the nearby docklands, stealing was accepted–virtually encouraged–because it helped impoverished people survive. Most were still imbued in the ethos of thievery, which had been instilled in them by those communities where they'd been born. Being honest didn't help you survive in a slum like Deptford or any of the other rundown Thames-side tenements.
At the end of the war, Reader's flashy but disreputable father abandoned the family leaving Reader–aged just seven–as the oldest male in the household. It was a heavy burden to carry for one so young.
Deptford never really shook off the stench of Victorian poverty until the combined efforts of Hitler's bombing raids and the economic realities of life in post-war Britain effectively flattened much of its slums into submission. After the Second World War, the descendants of many of those disease-ridden ghetto victims finally turned their backs on the cobbled streets and were encouraged to start afresh in the suburbs that were sprouting up in the cleaner air and wider fields where South East London met the so-called Garden of England, Kent. These suburbs were supposed to represent the acceptable new face of Middle England, with many appealing features but few of the old inner city's bad habits.
It has to be said that most of the suburbs with names like Bromley and Bexleyheath on the border between South London and Kent were a bit dull. Compared with the harsh, dilapidated streets of Deptford, Bermondsey, Walworth, Rotherhithe and Waterloo, however, they must have seemed like heaven. These new suburbs even retained a few traditional reminders of London life like a fine range of pubs, fish and chip shops and pie and eel shops, and enough memories of the capital and its history to make sure these new residents felt at home.
Reader was brought up in these new post-war suburban wastelands that were supposed to bring stability and happiness for all their inhabitants. But as one old South East London resident pointed out: "You could take Brian Reader out of Deptford but you could never take Deptford out of Brian Reader."
No wonder that in the newly developed South London suburbs, corner sweetshops became fair game for kids who'd loiter outside them after school most afternoons. They'd steal empty bottles of Tizer by slipping through the side gates to the back yard where all the empties were stored. Then they'd walk brazenly in through the front of the shop and claim the penny deposit per bottle, buying sweets with the money. These so-called "Cheeky Charlies" were perceptive and streetwise characters from a young age. And their remarkably sharp powers of observation would be put to good use in later years.
Back then Brian Reader and his mates looked up to the old criminal "faces" who emerged immediately after the war. These were larger than life characters dubbed by newspapers with outlandish names such as the "King of the Underworld" and the "King of the Dog Dopers."
Back in the suburbs, long before they left school Reader and his contemporaries would earn extra pocket money working part-time jobs such as early-morning newspaper rounds. This would help fuel their obsession with earning much larger sums of cash when they grew up. Children like Brian Reader soon "graduated" to stolen bicycle parts, nicking radios out of cars and even shoplifting. Everything was fair game but cigarettes, spirits and clothing were the "big earners." Railway containers were raided at night and their contents would end up on local street markets the following day.
The details are sketchy but Reader later admitted to some of his associates that his first conviction came at the age of eleven when he was caught breaking into five shops. That most probably made him a hero in the eyes of many of his friends.
As ex-robber Billy later explained: "Being nicked at that age helped elevate the young crooks to a position of great influence among their mates."
When talking to those who in later life committed some of the biggest robberies in British criminal history, they all agreed that from an early age they'd boast to anyone who'd listen what they wanted to do when they grew up. "Earn a big fat wedge of cash," was always the reply.
Brian Reader and his friends formed gangs and dodged train and bus fares to get up to central London to steal wallets and people's belongings from tourist buses parked in places like Constitution Hill, near Buckingham Palace. So-called scallywags like Reader made as much as five pounds a day by selling everything onto a "fence," an older man who handled stolen goods.
Fences were Dickensian-type characters renowned as good organizers and greatly respected in these post-war working class communities. Such a "career" was considered a very profitable and crafty way to make good money out of crime without getting your hands dirty.
Meanwhile Brian Reader and his mates also nicked lead off roofs and collected scrap to sell down at the riverside yards that sprung up where Hitler's bombs had flattened buildings during the Blitz. But characters like Reader and his chums preferred to be out and about on the streets of South London, looking for opportunities, rather than scrabbling precariously around on rooftops. One of his school friends later explained: "Brian had these sharp, beady little eyes that darted around in all directions, scanning the streets on the lookout for trouble or a chance to get up to a bit of mischief."
By the early 1950s, dockworkers on both sides of the Thames–east and south–started losing their jobs as the post-war recession dragged the country downward. Wages plummeted and even more people turned to crime in order to survive. Soon London's new heroes were the "pavement artists"–robbers–who'd scoop a few hundred pounds from a Post Office stick-up and then buy everyone a round of celebratory drinks in the local pub.
True, they'd sometimes get caught by police, stand trial at places like the Old Bailey and go down for a stretch. But, as ex-robber Billy later recalled: "At least they lived in style. We was quite in awe of those types of villains back then. They had guts and courage." Many in the community were furious about the lengthy sentences handed down to such criminals, who were in many ways considered latter-day Robin Hoods.
At the age of fifteen, Brian Reader left school and became a butcher's boy but it wouldn't turn out to be a long-term career for him. He was more interested in getting out and about with his mates and making some real cash.
In the 1950s, the relationship between the police and petty criminals was a civilized one, at least on the surface. A lot of cops and villains had been brought up in the same neighborhoods and many went to the same schools. They'd often bump into each other in the local pub and exchange pleasantries, despite often being "nicked" the previous week.
There were no professional security companies to protect money back in those days. More often than not, two or three trusted workers in a company would be given a few extra coins to pick up the cash from a nearby bank. If they were lucky they were armed with a cosh. Workers often informed their criminal associates about the transportation of large sums of money in exchange "for a drink."
And in the middle of this heady criminal environment, prison became a breeding ground for even bigger robberies as villains linked up with new partners-in-crime while serving time.
The most legendary "job" of this era was the one old-time professional London villains call, even to this day, "the Mother of all robberies." It was a truck hijack committed in September 1954, outside the KLM Airline offices in Holborn, just around the corner from Hatton Garden. It was to become the precursor for some of the UK's most notorious hold-ups. Brian Reader lapped up all the details reported on the front pages of every newspaper at the time.
Raiders got away with two boxes containing £45,500 in gold bullion, a haul that would have been worth millions today. The sheer audacity of the KLM job left the great British public gasping, amid cries of how London's underworld was ruling the streets at this time.
The long arm of the law eventually located the van used in the KLM raid plus a couple of sets of false number plates, but nothing else. When Scotland's Yard's illustrious Flying Squad rounded up all the usual suspects they discovered every one of them had a cast-iron alibi and no trace of the gold was ever discovered. No wonder many in the London underworld proclaimed it to be the perfect crime.
One of Brian Reader's favorite hobbies at this time was attending the local greyhound track (known as "going to the dogs"), where he and his associates liked to gamble. Dog tracks back then were a hotbed for local villains. Ever-observant and perceptive youths like him loved to watch these tough, edgy older characters in their sheepskin coats, who seemed to carry endless bundles of five pound notes around in their pockets.
Then, in the middle of this colorful existence, Brian Reader was called up by the armed forces as conscription still existed in the UK. He twice tried to fail his medical but the army didn't fall for it and so, in early 1955, Reader was faced with at least eighteen months away from his favorite South London haunts.
Reader was outraged by the very notion of conscription. He'd come from a family whose numbers had been seriously depleted in the trenches of the so-called Great War of 1914–18. He had no desire to serve Queen and country. He'd already had a taste of earning decent money as a criminal and also feared that someone else might move in on his "patch" while he was away in the army.
Reader was put in a unit for troublesome recruits. Typically, Reader finally accepted his fate and decided to keep his head down and try to learn a few new skills while he was in the army. He was particularly interested in explosives and weaponry and "cutting" through metal and the equipment needed for such activities. It had dawned on Reader that he could pick up some invaluable experience, which might help him when he got back to London at the end of his national service.
It was said back then that many youths would be "knocked into shape" by their experiences in the services. But in the case of Brian Reader and many of his South London associates, nothing could be further from the truth. They didn't become conformist after suffering at the hands of brutal sergeant majors. Instead, they became even more insubordinate and resentful when they returned to the civilian world.
By the time he was back on his manor, Reader only had one thing on his mind; to earn a living "ducking and diving" through the mean streets of South East London. Back in the civilian world he was soon on the lookout for more recruits to his cause. It was clear Reader already had an intense work ethic. He and his contemporaries were all opportunists, determined not to live within the "normal" world where salaries were rock bottom and people struggled to survive.
Naturally, as Reader's circle of acquaintances grew, so did his dodgy habits. When one classmate from his school days got a job in a garage he started supplying Reader with stolen car parts. But few in the community frowned upon such activities at this time.
Reader often recruited other bright, quick-witted youths with an eye for the main chance. In some ways, he was a bit of a Fagin-type character back in those days, working with teams of younger criminals out on the streets of London.
Back then most men under the age of 25 had an obsession with owning a motor car and Brian Reader was no exception. His father hadn't been able to afford one, which made Reader doubly determined to own "a good pair of wheels." But characters like Reader tended not to bother visiting the local car showroom. Instead, they'd look around for a car that took their fancy and "nick it." Reader himself became well known for driving around in a different car virtually every week.
And in the middle of all this, Reader and his friends retained an unhealthy disregard for anyone in authority. As far as Reader was concerned, policemen, judges and Home Office officials were all "the enemy." They were all out to stop him and his mates from doing what they did best–thieving.
Brian Reader may have been the consummate young opportunist criminal from an early age, but all that was watered down when he had his head turned by a pretty girl from Dulwich named Lyn. She worked in a local bookmakers where Reader was a daily bettor. When they first began "courting," Lyn's family tried to put her off Reader "the scallywag." It wasn't surprising that this drove Brian and Lyn further into each other's arms.
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- Jul 12, 2016
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