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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Stolen Art Watch, Who Said Stolen Art Was Worthless ??

August 8, 2007

Travellers who lived in luxury have millions of pounds seized

Helen Nugent

A group of travellers who had no jobs or any other legitimate source of income but who shopped at Harrods, wore fur coats and drove luxury cars have had nearly £3 million confiscated.

Although police expected to uncover cash and property when they made a series of raids at a Leicestershire site, nothing could have prepared them for what they found at homes belonging to the Biddle and Stretton families.

A fleet of top-of-the-range cars, including Mercedes, BMWs and a Porsche were the most visible assets. But they also seized almost £1 million in cash, much of it buried in tins in the gardens or stuffed inside cuddly toys. One member of the group had hidden nearly £5,000 in her dishwasher.

Also unearthed was £500,000 of jewellery, £200,000 of Royal Worcester crockery and 1,500 high-quality items, from antiques to designer clothes. Receipts from Harrods and Selfridges were strewn around the homes. Nearly all had been bought with the profits of vehicle crime.

Now, eight months after the final defendants were sentenced, the courts have ordered the largest confiscation order of its kind in this country. On Monday a judge at Nottingham Crown Court ruled that £1,923,285 should be confiscated from five members of the Stretton family. Hours later, at a separate hearing, a judge at Derby Crown Court said that £666,000 should be taken from the Biddles. A smaller amount had earlier been confiscated from three other people.

The culmination of the case comes four years after officers began Operation Lucky, more than two years since the raids and follows a marathon court process in which 16 people were convicted of various offences, from tax evasion and benefit fraud to car “clocking” and selling stolen vehicles.

The ringleaders were Elvis Biddle, 29, and Heath Stretton, 37, who were both jailed last year for 3½ years. They masterminded the group’s activities from the Justin Park travellers’ site near Market Harborough.

Leicester Crown Court was told last November how the families had made their money from “clocking” high-mileage cars and selling stolen caravans. Put simply, they bought vehicles at auction for a pittance, reduced the mileages and sold them on, supported by forged documents and altered MoT certificates.

During the hearing, the court was told how police found no trace of any legitimate income during Elvis Biddle’s entire life. Yet inquiries found that he and his girlfriend had spent more than £140,000 in the final months of the families’ criminal empire. A search of his parents’ home recovered £370,000 of luxury goods.

Florence Biddle, his mother, had claimed family allowance and used it to buy one of her sons a Rolex watch.

At Heath Stretton’s home, his wife’s eight fur coats worth £63,500 were seized with a £20,000 personal numberplate, a £28,990 diamond bracelet and five Chanel handbags worth £8,115.

Mrs Biddle, 55, and her husband, John, 49, were each given two-year sentences last November. Boysie Biddle, 20, was sent to a young offender institution for 12 months. Members of the Stretton family were given custodial sentences. The Stretton parents, Catherine and Joseph, were each given 12-month conditional discharges.

Detective Superintendent Chris Tew, of Leicestershire police, said: “For years these individuals were living a lifestyle most people could only ever dream of, yet none of them had a legitimate job.”

Police confiscate £3m crime haul

Proceeds of crime totalling almost £3m have been confiscated as part of a Leicestershire Police operation.

Officers found £1m in cash and 37 vehicles and jewellery worth £500,000 at homes around a travellers' site near Market Harborough on 1 April 2005.

The haul resulted in 16 people being sentenced for a variety of offences, with the final three sentenced at Leicester Crown Court in December 2006.

On Monday the goods were confiscated under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Buried cash

Operation Lucky was the largest investigation of its kind ever undertaken by Leicestershire Police.

Officers discovered some cash buried underground and some stuffed inside toys.
Police also found Royal Worcester crockery worth £200,000 and 1,500 luxury items such as antiques and designer clothes during the raid at and around Justin Park travellers' site.

The offences included possession of stolen property, tax evasion and benefit fraud, as well as car-clocking and selling stolen vehicles.

A hearing was held on Monday to confirm what would be done with the goods.
The money will now be handed over to the Treasury - some will be returned to the police force and Crown Prosecution Service.
'Compensate victims'

Det Supt Chris Tew, said: "Operation Lucky uncovered organised criminality on a large scale and the profits were clearly huge.
"For years the individuals involved were living a lifestyle most people could only ever dream of yet none of them had a legitimate job.

"We are delighted that some of the money confiscated will go directly to compensate the victims in this case and I know how much it will mean to some of them to receive a cheque to reimburse them for the thousands they lost."
Bobby Biddle, 22, said to be "low down the chain" in the scams, was sentenced to eight months in prison, after admitting car-clocking and the conversion of criminal property on 7 December 2006.

Priscilla Devlin, 24, was given a two-year conditional discharge after pleading guilty to possession of criminal property.

Sherry Stretton, 33, was given a 200-hour community punishment order after she admitted possession of criminal property, including £100,000 worth of jewellery.

Art Hostage comments:

The irony of this is another rival Traveller family, working for the London Met Police, is claiming a reward for this seizure, via a Masonic Lodge to which both the Informing Traveller and various senior Police officers are members.

It will be interesting to see if they get paid, or will they have to resort to legal action ?

This family is also involved in high value art theft and seems to be in control of the organised art raids that have occurred recently.

£2.2m bill for police informants

The Metropolitan Police spent more than £2.2m on police informants in the year 2006-2007, it has been revealed.
The Met paid out £2,220,574 in rewards for information about criminals operating in London and in other areas.

Another £134,961 was spent on "informant related expenditure", thought to include accommodation, travel and food for police handlers.

Senior officers have said that such knowledge is crucial in fighting organised crime and terror threats.
London's police spent £2,225,893 on informants in 2005-6 and £143,606 more on related costs.

But the Met, like other police forces across England and Wales, has refused to give details of the total amount it spends on informants, even after a Freedom of Information Act request.

Assistant Commissioner Steve House said informants were a vital source of intelligence, but said the idea of people being paid small amounts for rumours overheard in pubs was not accurate.

Mr House said in a public meeting last month that certain details could not be divulged in order to protect informants.
Secrecy criticised

He said: "Most of our informants are doing this purely for money and they are involved in the criminal lifestyle and their lives are often at risk.

"The lack of transparency is to a certain extent deliberate. Informants, or as they are now called, Covert Human Intelligence Sources, are covert assets.

"It is not good sense to tell too much about any covert assets. We do not give too much detail."
Critics say some of the procedures could be abused because cash changes hands under a cloak of secrecy.

Metropolitan Police Authority member Jenny Jones said she will discuss the amount paid with Sir Ian Blair at the next meeting of the oversight group.
Criticising the secrecy, she said: "This is a classic example of information the police could easily have given us."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: "There is no earthly reason why the Met should want to keep this information secret and it is a great pity that it has taken so much effort to get the truth out of them."

Informant system 'open to abuse'
By Chris Summers

The Liberal Democrats and several campaign groups have expressed concerns about the amount of public money being spent without accountability on police informers.

Several people who work or have worked with the police have contacted the BBC News website to voice their concerns about the issue.

One man, who works with the police and has intimate knowledge of the system, said it was "open to abuse".
Jim, whose name we have changed, told the BBC News website expenses were frequently fiddled.

"I know of officers who have run non-existent sources and claimed the money themselves. Some use it for Friday afternoon drinking sessions.

"Within my unit there are sources who are paid on a week-to-week basis and get bigger payments when they get a major result, for example when they lead officers to hidden firearms.
'Turning a blind eye'

"A lot of units turn a blind eye to these sources committing crimes. In fact they sometimes say to them, 'Just make sure you don't get caught'.

"The Association of Chief Police Officers produced a document about the handling of sources, but it has never been published. The system badly needs regulating."

Steven - again it is not his real name - a former detective who used to handle covert human intelligence sources (CHIS) but now lives abroad, said it was inherently difficult to deal with people who were often liars and criminals.

He told the BBC News website: "It is a murky and complex and unsavoury world. Most of these people lie for a living - the trick is to find the lie... and the truth."

One horrific example of such duplicity was outlined in Liverpool Crown Court in 1999.
Kevin Morrison was eventually jailed for life for the robbing, mutilating and murdering 74-year-old Alice Rye.

Morrison, a registered police informant, had earlier tried to "whet the appetite" of Merseyside detectives by divulging previously unpublicised details about her death.

Morrison, who was seeking the £5,000 reward which was on offer, tried to incriminate an acquaintance, Keith Darlington.

Steven told the BBC News website: "While historically some sources may have been on a retainer, in my experience this kind of thing was very rare indeed.

"They are usually paid on results - the better the information, the better the result. Poor, weak and misleading information, leads to a confused or poor result, and a lower payment.

"Having sources on the inside of a job is also a very risky business, for the police at court but also for the source themselves.

Risk assessment

"Having a CHIS exposed in court means a massive expense for the police in terms of constant witness protection, relocation, new identities and so on.

"There are very high levels of control for this sort of thing - at detective chief superintendent level - given the risk assessment requirements for both the handler and the CHIS.

"The days of back-handers to worthless sources paid out by grubby detectives are long gone thankfully."

But Dick Kirby, a retired Flying Squad officer who ran informants throughout his career, said politicians were wrong to try to delve too deeply into how much money was being spent on informants.

'Productive' system

He said: "The use of informants - and I include supergrasses - is one of the most productive ways of infiltrating, breaking up and prosecuting to conviction gangs of criminals. During my career, not one of my informants was ever compromised, nor even suspected.

"Matters are somewhat different, now.

There is far too much paperwork generated regarding the true identity of informants, thus raising the risk of identifying them.

And now, this latest move by politicians to get the various police forces to reveal how much is spent rewarding informants - I can tell them, not enough!"

Mr Kirby, who has written several books on the subject, said:
"Grassing has always been a high-risk business. Why anybody would wish to do it nowadays is beyond me, yet they do."

"I cannot see any sense in revealing how much is spent on informants. It is simply a case of politicians wanting to know, for the sake of knowing. It would also be another nail in the coffin for informants, to lead to their identification."

Art Hostage comments:

£1million went to Brighton, Sussex, £500,000 went to Horsham, Sussex, £500,000 was all that was paid to informants who reside in London.

It is interesting to note that both the Informants from Brighton and Horsham are Masons and it is through their respective Masonic Lodges they have claimed their rewards, using Senior Police Officers to vouch for them and lobby for the maximum payment.

Then again, that is what Masons do, help each other, they make no secret of that.

Current figures are more revealing because they include rewards claimed for the £53 million Kent cash robbery, provided there are convictions.

How much was paid from insurers would give a clearer indication of the amount coming from Public funds.

It is also worth remembering that very large payments are made via the London Met Police to provide an extra "Firewall" for the registered informant, as was the case with the Travellers from Leicestershire.

So this figure of £2.2 million is a bit misleading, and also touted, via the media, to try and hood-wink people into becoming registered informants, sorry, Human Sources.

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