Travellers who lived in luxury have millions of pounds seized
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.”
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.
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 money will now be handed over to the Treasury - some will be returned to the police force and Crown Prosecution Service.
"For years the individuals involved were living a lifestyle most people could only ever dream of yet none of them had a legitimate job.
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.
£2.2m bill for police informants
London's police spent £2,225,893 on informants in 2005-6 and £143,606 more on related costs.
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.
Critics say some of the procedures could be abused because cash changes hands under a cloak of secrecy.
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
Jim, whose name we have changed, told the BBC News website expenses were frequently fiddled.
'Turning a blind eye'
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.
"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.
"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.
Mr Kirby, who has written several books on the subject, said:
"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."