As part of the investigation a questionnaire was sent to builders helping to renovate the house, asking if they knew of any incriminating evidence.
Avon and Somerset police arrested and charged three men in 2016. One was a 6ft 5in Asian with a Birmingham accent and the two others were tall, thick-set men with Gloucestershire accents.
The police tried to link them to the burglary through phone records. Judge Julian Lambert stopped the trial last year and ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict them. The Crown Prosecution Service took the case to the Court of Appeal, which agreed with the original judgment. The CPS persisted with new charges. A new prosecutor brought in to review the case said that it should be dropped.
Charles Hill, a leading art theft investigator, said that the police investigation was “madness”. Mr Hill, who recovered Edvard Munch’s The Scream after it was stolen from an Oslo gallery in 1994, said: “The housesitter said the burglars were small, Irish-voiced men. She went through a horrific experience and was very brave in giving her evidence, but the police were so convinced through their algorithms on telephone call data, without knowing what was said in those calls, that they decided to lay a case against these men.
“The number of competent and able detectives has dwindled and they don’t appear to have any in Avon and Somerset. It all boils down to a lack of judgment.”
In February 2015 Mr Bulmer was contacted by Donald Maliska and Jonathan Rees, private investigators, who organised the paintings’ return for £175,000, with guidance from Mr Hill and the full knowledge of the police. At one point the burglars threatened to sell one of the paintings to an oligarch.
Both men were later charged with conspiracy to receive stolen goods and defraud an insurance company. Mr Rees had all charges against him withdrawn yesterday and the case against Mr Maliska will also be dropped.
A CPS spokesman said that the case was withdrawn “after serious and extensive review”. Avon and Somerset police accepted the ruling.
Kieran Galvin, for the defence, said that the case was a “scandal”. He added: “It is almost impossible to describe to people that a man who has gone out of his way to get these paintings back and given them back to the police was then turned on and prosecuted. The whole thing is just insane.
“Mr Rees acted properly at all times, took legal advice and liaised with former senior police officers and recovered very valuable paintings that are not just property of Mr Bulmer but the property of the nation,” he said.
At 6.30am on 10 June 2015 private investigator Jonathan Rees received an intriguing text from Don Maliska, an ex-SAS friend who worked in private security.
It said: ‘Morning u bastard. Google former Tory MP Esmond Bulmer (Bulmer cider). Art theft.’
Rees complied and learned that six years earlier in March 2009 Bulmer’s Italian-style villa called The Pavilion in Bruton, Somerset had been robbed while he was on holiday with his wife.
Three men had tied up the house sitter and driven off in the family Mercedes with 15 paintings and jewellery worth over £2m.
Bulmer was incensed by what he saw as Avon & Somerset police’s ‘brain dead’ investigation. The cider baron believed the robbery was an inside job by a building contractor with links to an organised crime group in Gloucester.
The police disagreed – they thought it was a team from Merseyside who were after Mrs Bulmer’s jewellery worth over £500,000 – but nevertheless sent a questionnaire to builders who had worked on renovating the mansion. Unsurprisingly, none confessed by return post.
The robbery was controversial for another reason. Prince Charles had just used the same building contractor and workforce for Highgrove, his Gloucestershire home, so the suggestion of an inside job had royal security implications.
The police investigation was out of its depth and soon closed down without results. But Bulmer used his connections to keep ‘a burner under Avon & Somerset police’. The case was re-opened in 2014 after the 83-year-old, a former parliamentary private secretary at the Home Office, complained to Theresa May, the then home secretary, and to the chief constable.
Detectives from the Serious and Organised Crime Group based at police headquarters in Portishead were given the case but hadn’t got very far by the summer of 2015 when Rees received the text from his ex-SAS pal.
Maliska had a tip that the Bulmer art collection had been stored for years but those controlling the fifteen paintings now wanted to off load them for a reward.
Rees agreed to be Maliska’s intermediary and was given a USB stick containing photographs of the paintings each taken with a recent copy of The Sun.
Whoever controlled the stolen art clearly had a sense of humour because they used the tabloid’s ‘DIAMOND WHEEZERS’ front page on 20 May announcing the arrest of the elderly gang behind the recent £14m Hatton Garden safe deposit robbery.
Through a friendly journalist, Rees was introduced to the UK’s leading art detective. Charley Hill was no dusty academic but a former Vietnam veteran who had turned his back on the priesthood for a career in Scotland Yard, where he ended up overseeing its arts and antiques squad until his retirement in 1997.
During his time in the police, Hill had specialised in posing as an art dealer and helped recover Munch’s The Scream during one of many undercover operations.
Now in his late sixties, Hill earns a good living as an art detective for hire. The approach from Rees intrigued him, especially when Hill put the private investigator’s name into Google.
Axe murder fells Scotland Yard
The search engine threw up multiple hits naming Rees as the prime suspect in the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan, his then partner in a private investigation agency based in south London.
The Morgan case is the most investigated murder in UK policing history and still remains unsolved after five investigations costing at least £50m.
The Metropolitan Police was forced to apologise to the Morgan family after decades of stonewalling and covering up its incompetence and corruption.
No clear motive has been proven for Morgan’s murder, but the Met have claimed the 37-year-old father of two was preparing to blow the whistle on police corruption and links between London drug dealers and Irish paramilitaries.
The theory goes that this threatened Rees, who arranged to meet Morgan at the Golden Lion in Sydenham on the night of 10 March 1987. Someone later attacked Morgan with an axe in the pub car park, which was left embedded in his head.
Rees, his two brothers-in-law and other two suspects, including a former detective sergeant who briefly investigated the murder and then on retirement joined the private investigation agency, have always maintained their innocence.
They say other lines of inquiry – for example where Morgan’s complicated personal and professional life collided – were ignored and they are scapegoats for massive police incompetence and vindictiveness.
The Morgan family are not convinced but battled alone for 25 years until sections of the media revived the murder case for its own ends during the phone hacking scandal in 2011.
After Morgan’s murder, Rees had renamed Southern Investigations and began working closely for Rupert Murdoch’s News of The World and other mainly tabloid newspapers.
The lucrative arrangement continued even after Rees was convicted in 2000 for working with a corrupt Met detective to plant drugs on the wife of a client who was locked in a custody battle.
The 61-year-old former seaman from Yorkshire is viewed by many as a master of the dark arts with a roster of dirty cops, bent journalists and other sources at his disposal to hack and blag private information for scoops on errant celebrities, big crime stories and randy politicians.
But by the time Rees was involved in recovering the stolen Bulmer art collection The News of The World had been shut down and he had emerged as one of the chief villains of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into media standards.
But Rees refused to go quietly and had become an embarrassing thorn in the side of the Met who he was suing for malicious prosecution and misconduct in a public office following his spectacular acquittal for the murder of Morgan.
The trial of five murder suspects collapsed in March 2011 after the chief detective leading this fifth investigation was found to have acted corruptly. The fit up involved coaching supergrasses to implicate Rees and others in order to improve the chances of conviction.
Responsibility for the collapse of the investigation, however, went all the way to the top of the Met. And the most powerful force in the UK was now facing a massive damages claim and, worse still, Theresa May had ordered an outside inquiry into its handling of the Morgan murder in 2013.
Winston Wolf and the art detectives
None of this put off Charley Hill. The retired detective chief inspector was a maverick and never blindly loyal to the Met. He jokingly likened Rees to the fictional character Winston Wolf – the gangland fixer played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction.
Bulmer had contacted Hill immediately after the burglary but the art detective was too busy and put the cider baron in touch with Dick Ellis, another veteran of the Met’s arts and antiques squad. After retiring from the police in 1999, Ellis worked for Christie’s then joined a Plymouth-based investigation agency before setting up his own consultancy.
He too believed the initial police investigation was incompetent. But Ellis discounted the notion that the Johnsons, a notorious family from Gloucestershire, were responsible. The robbery was ‘a professional job’ not a smash and grab raid, he deduced.
On 17 June, Ellis alerted the insurance firm that had hired him to investigate the robbery. Hiscox was delighted with the break through after six years. The insurance firm had already paid out £1.2m to Bulmer soon after the robbery and felt this was the best chance of recouping their ‘significant loss’.
Under British law there is a public interest in the recovery of important works of art. A reward is a necessary part of the recovery process but cannot be paid to anyone known to be involved in the theft.
Insurers will usually cap the reward at 10% of the stolen item’s value. Hiscox’s initial reward was £50,000, but this was deemed too low and the insurers indicated they were willing to go to £150,000.
All but one of the fifteen stolen works of art were on offer, but emails show Rees and Maliska still hoped the recovery would be worth somewhere between £200,000 and £300,000.
On 24 June, Ellis and Hill met Rees for dinner at an Italian restaurant near Waterloo station. ‘They are not stupid people,’ Rees told the Cable. ‘They did their own fucking Googling. They asked me about [the Morgan case] and I talked to them about it. I don’t shut up about the fucking Morgan case. I told them what it was all about and the other things I’ve been involved in work wise.’
Rees had agreed to keep Maliska’s name out of it and told his dinner guests that he was fronting for ‘SAS boys’ now working in private security who needed to remain anonymous because of concern about past military activities during the dirty war in Northern Ireland.
After the meeting, Ellis told detectives in Portishead that he was ‘satisfied’ Rees was simply ‘a mouthpiece’ for someone who could get to those controlling the stolen paintings.
The detectives did their own checks on Rees and discovered his extensive and colourful entry on the police national computer.
By July 2015, it was clear to Avon & Somerset police that they were dealing with a sophisticated fixer and long-term target of the Met who was offering a way of finally getting Bulmer off their back.
‘A reputational risk’
Negotiations, however, took a dramatic turn on 11 July when Rees informed Hill that those controlling the paintings were going to sell Bulmer’s favourite piece to an unnamed Russian oligarch if the reward was not raised within three days to £175,000.
‘The source phoned up Don [Maliska] and said they’ve got this Russian who just wants this one painting, Apple Blossom, because it looks like his 16-year-old daughter who died in a car crash,’ Rees explained to the Cable.
Hill immediately thought the whole thing was ‘a load of bollocks’ – a ruse to raise the reward. Ellis went further, he thought the reward negotiations might now have become a ransom, which is illegal to pay, and raised it at a secret high-level police meeting in Portishead where a representative of the National Crime Agency’s anti-kidnap and extortion unit was also present.
Internal documents show Avon & Somerset police were concerned about ‘the reputational risk’ to the force. Detectives were wary of Rees. However, the transcript of the meeting shows Ellis referring to Rees as ‘an honest broker’.
The secret meeting concluded that there was insufficient evidence to arrest anyone; that Hiscox was responsible for the reward negotiations and detectives would wait to see if any criminal intelligence emerged from a successful recovery.
Consequently, the police refused to provide Rees with a ‘comfort letter’ but did note in one internal document that he had committed ‘no criminal offences’ and the National Crime Agency agreed the £175,000 reward could be paid into his bank account.
On 11 August, Rees signed an official document drawn up by Hiscox confirming that he and those he represented were not directly or indirectly involved in the robbery or handling of stolen goods.
Hiscox agreed to transfer the reward money soon after the handover of the paintings, which was now set to take place at a secure warehouse near London Bridge on 20 August.
SAS man revealed
Don Maliska has a lean military bearing. The 64-year-old Scottish private investigator served nine years in the army during the seventies including a year attachment to the SAS reserves.
He told the Cable that the Bulmer case was ‘my job, my source’ and that Rees acted as the intermediary to ensure the recovery was above board. The Scot and Yorkshireman were friends of twenty years and had been contractors for The News of The World.
On 19 August, Maliska hired a white van in Essex using his real name and military ID and early the next morning drove to the Midlands to collect the paintings.
He returned to London before midday and gave the keys to Rees who drove the van alone through the gates of the secure warehouse where the police were waiting.
Forensic officers swabbed the paintings for DNA and dusted for fingerprints before an art specialist began the authentication process.
Days later, a satisfied Hiscox transferred £175,000 to a jewellers in Birmingham after Rees decided at the last moment against using his own bank account.
On 24 August, Maliska travelled with two associates to Birmingham where the reward money was converted into gold bars and dispersed. Who got what remains unclear but Rees said he received no share.
Separately, Ellis earned a £58,000 success fee from Hiscox and a bonus from Bulmer. ‘Expectations with this kind of work are that, you know, you will earn some money out of it one way or the other,’ he explained. Ellis paid £5,000 to Hill and £10,000 to Rees, who says he paid half to Maliska.
Months passed. Everyone appeared happy. Bulmer had his paintings and Hiscox had recovered 60% of what it paid out. Rees was even planning further art recoveries with Hill, including getting back the cider baron’s missing Afterglow Taplow by Sir John Lavery.
Then, on 17 May 2016 everything changed. Rees, Maliska and ten others were arrested for offences connected to the robbery and recovery.
In nine months, Avon & Somerset police had gone from taking a cautious back seat over ‘an entirely private arrangement’ to a full on proactive operation codenamed Shine.
Had the detectives been running a sting operation all along? Or, as Rees and Maliska now suspected, did the explanation for the change in gear lie in London with the scandal engulfing the Met over the Daniel Morgan murder?
Don’t miss part one of the Dark Arts true crime series: The axe murder suspect, Somerset Tory cider baron and botched art heist police probe
A Big Secrethttps://thebristolcable.org/2019/05/part-2-the-troubled-cop-bent-on-solving-the-uks-longest-running-murder-case-and-a-key-player-in-the-phone-hacking-scandal/
To murder someone with an axe is unusual. It’s certainly not the preferred weapon of a contract killer, but more like something a violent thief might use. Yet Daniel Morgan was not robbed. He was found dead in the Golden Lion pub car park in March 1987 with an axe in his skull and £1000 in his pocket.
An axe might also fit happily into the hand of an insanely jealous lover or cuckolded husband blindly driven by murderous rage. Crimes of passion often leave forensic clues. Yet the axe that killed Morgan, a 37-year-old father of two young children, was specially woven with grip tape to ensure maximum leverage and no usable fingerprints or DNA.
What, then, if the person or persons responsible for the murder were not professional killers but needed to silence the private detective and had used an axe to put the police off the scent?
In detective chief superintendent David Cook, the Morgan family had finally found someone in the Metropolitan police they trusted to address these questions and solve the brutal murder, however embarrassing it was for the top brass.
When Cook took over the case in 2003, the stench of corruption, incompetence and masonic influence was undeniable, despite the Met’s best efforts for years to do just that.
Already, there had been four failed investigations into the same five suspects – Jonathan Rees, Morgan’s business partner, Glenn and Garry Vian, Rees’ brothers-in-law (the former said to be the axeman), Jimmy Cook, the suspected getaway driver, and Sid Fillery, a former detective sergeant who briefly investigated the murder and on his retirement became Rees’ new business partner.
The motive for the murder lacks clarity but the Met eventually settled on claims by witnesses that Morgan was preparing to blow the whistle on police corruption. How that concerned Rees and his circle is less clear, but where bent cops tread gangsters are not far behind and the Met threw in the possibility of links to drug dealing Irish paramilitaries.
Rees and the other usual suspects have consistently denied any involvement in the murder and say that from the outset detectives failed to examine alternative theories and motives. They point to Morgan’s adulterous private life and his at times dangerous work as a repo man and server of court summonses, which put him in the cross hairs of violent people here and abroad.
But the Met continued to insist they had the right men, who were bugged, tapped and infiltrated with a spy, all, however, to no avail. The hundreds of hours of secret recordings yielded no clear admissions and no forensics to justify a prosecution for murder.
It was not all failure, though. Rees was jailed for seven years in 2000 after bugs in his private investigation firm, renamed Law & Commercial, caught him plotting to plant drugs on the wife of a client locked in a custody battle.
In 2003, Fillery pleaded guilty to accessing indecent thumbnail images of children on his computer. And two years later, Garry Vian was jailed for fourteen years for his part in a major drug importation.
Despite these mini victories, by 2005, most senior detectives would have turned down the offer to lead a fifth murder investigation. The Morgan case was a poisoned chalice, akin to career suicide.
But Cook was flattered by the approach. He promised not to let down the long-suffering Morgan family, whose campaign for justice had almost hollowed out Daniel’s older brother.
But it was false hope, because David Cook was hiding a big secret; one that would drive him to act corruptly and plunge the Met into a massive crisis.
The Supergrass FarceThe Morgan family understood from Cook that a successful prosecution needed witnesses to the murder, which was unlikely, or at least to its cover up – people to whom the usual suspects had perhaps confessed or tried to recruit.
Such witnesses were likely to be criminals and would therefore have to be debriefed carefully before they were presented to a court as credible. This would mean admitting all their crimes in return for a reduced sentence, witness protection and in some cases a salary – a process known as ‘cleansing’.
However, the use of supergrass witnesses had been wholly discredited by the time Cook took over the case. Between 1994 and 2002, the Met’s anti-corruption squad of so-called Untouchables had coached and induced supergrass evidence against allegedly bent cops and hidden this from the court. Inevitably, prosecutions collapsed or were overturned on appeal at the cost of millions to the taxpayer, and undoubtedly some dirty cops walked free.
Assistant commissioner John Yates, the officer to whom Cook now reported, was a former Untouchable. He had overseen a discredited supergrass-led operation against a ‘Groovy gang’ of allegedly corrupt, drug dealing southeast London detectives linked to the Rees circle.
One of the supergrasses, a repentant detective in the Groovy gang, claimed his other allegations about a bent officer on the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry were suppressed to protect the Met.
Though he denied the claim, Yates was definitely not someone who had the Morgan family’s trust. Not least because after the failed fourth investigation he had presented a whitewashing report that the Metropolitan Police Authority rejected.
The family was understandably suspicious when just as their call for a judicial inquiry into the whole Morgan mess was gathering pace among politicians, Yates appeared in 2006 with news of a major breakthrough in the case.
A witness had come forward, he said, who might prove to be the ‘golden thread’ needed to bring a successful prosecution for murder against Rees and the others.
Over the next two years, Cook had many undocumented conversations with several slippery criminals while they were going through the debriefing process. These supergrasses went on to variously claim that the suspects had confessed details of the murder and in one case that he was present in the pub car park when it happened.
Then in late 2008, Rees, the Vian brothers and Jimmy Cook were arrested for involvement in the killing and Fillery for perverting the course of justice.
However, months of legal argument at the Old Bailey slowly chipped away at the prosecution case as one by one the judge excluded the unreliable evidence of the key supergrasses. More importantly, Cook was exposed for having coached two of the most important witnesses, one of whom had a narcissistic personality disorder making him prone to pointless lying and manipulation.
Like a master of ceremonies in a game of Cluedo, Cook had told the witnesses what evidence he wanted to hear – it was Glenn Vian with an axe in the pub car park – and the supergrasses obliged.
In March 2011, on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Morgan murder, the prosecution threw in the towel and the judge found that Cook had effectively perverted the course of justice in trying to secure convictions.
The Morgan family were devastated and refused to stand with Yates while a statement was read outside court. Four months later, in July 2011, he resigned as another unfolding scandal – phone hacking – exposed the cosy revolving door between the Met and Rupert Murdoch’s News of The World.
In a letter to the Morgan family Yates said, “What I do hope though is that you understand that David Cook and I tried our very best.”
Hacked OffIn July 2011 Cook went sick. He successfully sued Murdoch and the Met over an incident that occurred when he first got involved in the Morgan case.
The News of the World had briefly put him and his police wife, Jacqui Hames, under surveillance in 2002 when he fronted a Crimewatch appeal about the Morgan case. Cook believed the intrusion was a favour to Rees and Fillery, the tabloid’s long-standing dark arts masters, and claimed it had caused the break up of his marriage.
He also lambasted the Met for failing to relocate his family or admonish Murdoch executives. Cook rightly suspected they were too close to senior officers. But in a rare concern for the taxpayer, the Met had concluded that the threat, which included blagging personal information, did not merit buying the family home.
The snub helped make Cook and Hames darlings of the Hacked Off lobby of celebrities, their lawyers and media rivals who were delighted when prime minister David Cameron invited Lord Leveson to look into press standards.
But in January 2012, their Hacked Off hero was suddenly arrested, ironically for leaking information during the Morgan case to Mike Sullivan, the crime editor of another Murdoch tabloid, The Sun.
Only then, when facing possible prison, did Cook appear to come clean about his big secret.
Death was a predominant thought
In a witness statement to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), who had ordered his arrest, Cook revealed that he was suicidal throughout his involvement with the Morgan case.
He said his marriage had really broken down in 1999 because of the effect of the assassination of Jill Dando on his wife, who co-presented Crimewatch. The estrangement from Jacqui Hames grew after he got involved with the Morgan case in 2002.
Two years later, Cook said he attempted suicide for the first time and tried again in 2009, when Hames started divorce proceedings. ‘Everything was against me, so I tried again on at least two maybe three occasions. Strangely, when I kept failing it just made me worse and on some occasions more determined … I really cannot remember much about 2009. Fighting the depression and a desire to kill myself was the predominate thought.’
It was in this acute mental crisis that Cook had cleansed the supergrasses and prepared for the murder trial of Rees and the others. But there was still one more secret to reveal.
Yates liked to nurture friendly journalists and had introduced Cook to Mike Sullivan of The Sun well before the murder trial. In fact, Yates approved of their plan to collaborate on a favourable book where it was hoped that Cook would be the hero cop who saved the Met and solved the case.
‘The book was a dream that I hoped would one day become a reality. At one point it was perhaps one of the few things that kept me alive … from 2008/9 there were times when I was not even looking to be alive when it was all finished,’ Cook wrote in his IPCC statement.
No money changed hands but Cook had financial problems because of his divorce and knew there was money in a book with a happy ending and ‘a movie deal’ attached.
It is hard to imagine a more dangerous state of affairs that the Met had overseen: A mentally unstable senior detective with money problems had manipulated witnesses in a murder trial while preparing a hagiography that would be worth more if the defendants were convicted.
DamagesIn 2013, Theresa May refused the Morgan family’s call for a judicial inquiry into the long-running fiasco, but instead ordered one by a Home Office appointed panel.
The Met’s handling of corruption allegations surrounding the Stephen Lawrence case was already under examination by a Home Office appointed QC. Both inquiries are still on going and have the potential to implicate a host of senior retired and serving officers in criminal and disciplinary offences.
In 2015, however, the IPCC decided it would not be in the public interest to prosecute Cook for the leaks to The Sun – because he had retired.
The watchdog never disclosed Cook’s witness statement to lawyers representing Rees, the Vians and Fillery who were now suing the Met for malicious prosecution and misconduct in a public office. Somehow the IPCC didn’t think the statement was relevant to Cook’s coaching of supergrass witnesses.
Equally, the Met had no interest in having Cook prosecuted for perverting the course of justice. A source close to the retired officer said he had warned the Met he would not go quietly if charged.
Clearly Cook has an important story to tell about what happened inside the Met and Morgan investigation, but he declined to speak to the Cable.
Meanwhile, over in Bristol, it was no stone unturned to prosecute Rees and others for the Bulmer art heist, which had been successfully recovered in August 2015 for a £175,000 reward.
Avon & Somerset police perhaps had a point to prove that they were not ‘brain dead’, as Bulmer called the initial investigation into the 2009 robbery. But the embattled Met was also aware that their colleagues down the M4 had Rees within their grasp.
Between August 2015 and May 2016 significant resources were poured into Operation Shine, which was run out of the Portishead headquarters of the Serious and Organised Crime Unit.
Rees was charged in 2017 with defrauding Bulmer and Hiscox insurance and perverting the course of justice. The dark arts trial was set for summer 2018.
‘I can’t believe that if he wasn’t Rees he would have been nicked,’ a source in his legal team told the Cable. Adding that a conviction in Bristol would certainly assist the Met over their ongoing Morgan debacle.
What happened in the witness box would take all sides by surprise.
Don’t miss part two of the Dark Arts true crime series: The troubled cop bent on solving the UK’s longest running murder case, and a key player in the phone hacking scandal
‘Too hot to handle.’https://thebristolcable.org/2019/05/part-three-a-somerset-cider-barons-stolen-art-collection-heroin-from-pakistan-two-collapsed-cases-and-a-rinsed-taxpayer/
In late August 2014, a ship from Pakistan docked at the Suffolk port of Felixstowe. Among the containers was 44 kilos of heroin packed inside hydraulic presses.
The UK Border Police somehow discovered the drugs and alerted the National Crime Agency (NCA).
The presses were resealed with trackers and surveillance officers followed the lorry picking up the machinery to a business in Birmingham where weeks later the gang behind the £5m drug importation were identified.
Documents seen by the Cable suggest that during the surveillance operation the NCA picked up intelligence, probably from phone taps and probes, that some in the heroin gang were trying to offload the stolen Bulmer art collection because it was ‘too hot to handle.’
This intelligence was passed in October 2014 to Avon & Somerset police who had only recently reopened the art robbery at the cider baron’s Somerset mansion following criticism that the initial investigation by Yeovil police in 2009 was ‘brain dead’.
The former Tory MP had lobbied Theresa May and pressured the chief constable, who gave the case to Serious and Organised Crime detectives based at headquarters in Portishead.
The detectives worked closely with Dick Ellis, the former Metropolitan police officer, who Hiscox Insurance had hired to recover the Bulmer art collection worth £1.2m.
Ellis was taken into the police’s confidence over the intelligence about the paintings but he was not allowed to share it.
Mark Regan, 43, and Skinder Ali, 36, two of the main players in the heroin gang, were under surveillance for almost a year before being remanded to prison in August 2015 to await trial.
An encrypted phone seized from Ali’s home contained compromising messages between the drug gang using colourful codenames such as Aquaman and Shops.
One exchange on 15 June 2015 was particularly interesting. It looked like someone called Tom was causing trouble but couldn’t be cut loose because he was ‘the route to the paintings!!!’
Five days earlier, on 10 June, Donald Maliska had contacted Jonathan Rees about an opportunity to recover the Bulmer art collection. At the time Hiscox were offering a £50,000 reward if the collection was returned in good condition.
Maliska had been doing this type of recovery work for insurers and private individuals since he left the SAS in 1979 and had once taken back a ship and its crew who were being held hostage by Nigerian pirates.
Getting back the Bulmer collection seemed easy by comparison and Maliska recruited two associates and asked Rees to be his intermediary with Hiscox and the police. They were not to know his real name just that Rees was representing ‘ex-SAS boys’ who could get back the paintings.
Rees agreed and was given a USB stick with photographs of the paintings that were taken next to a recent copy of The Sun.
Between 10 and 15 June, matters moved at an incredible pace. Rees handed legendary art detective Charley Hill the USB stick. He gave it to Ellis, his old colleague from the Met’s arts & antiques squad, who immediately alerted Avon & Somerset police.
Ali’s encrypted phone messages suggested he and Regan were aware meetings were taking place to start the recovery process.
Over June and July, organised crime detectives in Portishead made enquiries about Rees’ long history with the Met over the Daniel Morgan case, which at the time was causing the UK’s largest police force major problems.
Retired detective chief superintendent David Cook, the suicidal officer who corruptly undermined the fifth investigation, was said to be threatening to bring down others in the police if he was charged with any offences.
Meanwhile, Rees, the Vian brothers and Sid Fillery were suing the Met for malicious prosecution and misconduct in a public office over Cook’s actions. And to make matters worse, an independent inquiry ordered by Theresa May into the whole fiasco was underway.
It was against this background that on 17 July 2015, the NCA and Avon & Somerset detectives met secretly with Ellis in Portishead to discuss a demand that Rees had recently communicated from those controlling the paintings for £175,000.
The meeting ended with an agreement that Hiscox could pay the reward but detectives would continue to monitor the situation for any leads about the recovery efforts.
The police now knew Rees’ mobile number, which presented an opportunity to identify the ‘SAS boys’ and through them those controlling the paintings.
Whatever contact took place between Avon & Somerset police and the Met remains a secret because the transcript of the Portishead meeting was redacted in long sections when Rees was discussed.
Maliska recovered the paintings from the Midlands and Rees handed them over to the police on 20 August 2015. Four days later, the £175,000 reward was transferred to the bank account of a jeweller in Birmingham and converted into gold bars.
Over the next nine months, detectives in Portishead secretly cross-referenced intelligence on the heroin gang against what they had on Rees and Maliska.
The ex-SAS man was easily identified because he had used his real name to hire a van to collect the paintings. His mobile phone records were obtained and calls triangulated with others.
By May 2016, Avon & Somerset police felt Operation Shine had enough evidence of a massive conspiracy to make arrests in London, Kent, Surrey, Gloucestershire and Birmingham.
Ali was suspected of robbing the Bulmers with two builders, Liam Judge and Matthew Evans, who had worked on renovating the cider baron’s mansion.
Ali, Regan and another Birmingham man, Tom Lynch, were suspected of handling the stolen paintings with Maliska and his two associates David Price and Ike Obiamiwe.
Rees was suspected of trying to defraud Bulmer and Hiscox insurance with the three ‘SAS boys’ and separately of perverting the course of justice by lying in a witness statement about who they were.
Two jewellers from Birmingham were suspected of money laundering by converting the £175,000 reward into gold bars.
Everyone was bailed except Regan and Ali who were in prison awaiting trial for the heroin importation. In September 2016 they received hefty sentences of 21 years each.
The Bulmer art theft trial was set to open in summer 2018.
Perverting the course of justice
Meanwhile, back in London, Rees’ nemesis, David Cook, was fairing much better at the hands of the criminal justice system.
The police watchdog decided in November 2015 that though there was evidence against him, Cook would not face any criminal charges for leaking documents to The Sun journalist. Apparently, it wasn’t in the public interest now that he had retired.
A senior Met officer then produced a report that exonerated Cook, and therefore the force, of perverting the course of justice.
But in February 2017, a second senior judge, this time in the high court, came to the opposite conclusion after hearing the malicious prosecution claim brought against the Met by Rees, the Vians and Fillery.
Judge Mitting was not impressed when Cook didn’t appear as a witness for the Met. The retired officer sent a doctor’s note that it would set back his mental recovery. But Cook’s witness statement about his suicidal state of mind while overseeing the fifth murder investigation had not been disclosed to the defence.
Mitting found that Cook had perverted the course of justice, but controversially suggested that it was born of a genuine belief that Rees and the others were guilty.
Mitting, who now chairs the inquiry into undercover policing, also found that as Cook was not responsible for bringing charges, that was a decision by the CPS, therefore the malicious prosecution claim must fail.
Rees and the Vians immediately appealed and were back in front of three high court judges in April 2018, two months before the Bulmer trial was due to start in Bristol.
The appeal court in London completely reversed Mitting’s ruling and found that because Cook had acted corruptly while pushing the prosecution all the claimants were therefore entitled to compensation.
The decision put renewed pressure on the CPS to finally bring charges against Cook for perverting the course of justice.
Over in Bristol, Rees and Maliska were in a light-hearted mood at the start of their dark arts trial in June 2018.
The ex-SAS man believed he was a casualty of a Met vendetta against Rees and jokingly suggested his friend should plead guilty to the Morgan murder so everyone could go home.
Rees was concerned that the prosecutor, Stephen Mooney, also had it in for him. He claimed to have called Mooney ‘a fucking wanker’ during an unrelated court case years earlier when Rees was doing legal defence work for notorious south London gangster Bekir ‘the Duke’ Arif. Mooney was prosecuting the crime boss, who got eleven-and-a-half-years for supplying amphetamine sulphate to Bristol.
In preparation for Rees’ trial there had been considerable liaison between the Met and Avon & Somerset detectives over access to relevant material in the Morgan murder files.
Judge Lambert allowed the jury to see old letters Rees had sent to Fillery about the possibility of recovering a Henry Moore statue following a tip off from an inmate.
There were titters when one letter was read out suggesting the statue would appeal to ‘fat old poofs (retired judges)’ wanting to rub up against a nude male while gardening.
These and other politically incorrect attitudes were just some of the reasons it was decided Rees would not be giving evidence at the trial. Not that it mattered much, because key prosecution witnesses turned out to be very helpful to the defence.
‘The arts and antiques world is a strange place,’ Charley Hill told the jury. The art detective had continued to work with Rees and Sylvia Jones, the journalist who introduced them, to recover a missing painting from Bulmer’s collection.
Hill, however, turned hostile in the witness box and ended up in a showdown with Mooney telling the jury that the prosecutor’s case was a ‘conspiracy theory’ of ‘cooked up’ charges.
Dick Ellis, another prosecution witness, was also helpful to Rees when disclosure of the redacted transcript of the Portishead meeting with the police in July 2015 showed he had referred to Rees as ‘an honest broker.’
When all the prosecution evidence was presented, the defendants’ barristers argued there was simply no case to answer. Judge Lambert agreed and all the defendants were formally acquitted on 9 July 2018.
Paying the billDetectives hadn’t given up hope and the following month made a secret visit to Regan in prison. The old school criminal said he walked out of the meeting room as soon as it was clear he was being offered a massive reduction of his 21-year-sentence if he grassed.
Days later Regan wrote to Rees. ‘Obviously, I’m aware of you and recent events you’ve been involved in. I just thought it prudent to let you know in case it was connected to you.’
Back in London, the CPS, whose management of the Morgan murder trial was also open to serious criticism, decided in November 2018 that it was not in the public interest to prosecute Cook for perverting the course of justice.
The CPS in Bristol, however, did not take a similar view when it came to Rees, despite the humiliation of having the Bulmer case thrown out at half time.
Last March, it was decided Rees would be prosecuted over the statement he had given to Avon & Somerset detectives in November 2015 claiming not to know the real names of ‘the SAS boys’.
The CPS also wants to recharge Maliska, Price, Lynch and Ali over the handling of stolen goods. A hearing is set for July where a new prosecutor – Mooney has since been made a judge – will have to persuade Lambert, the original trial judge.
The decision to have another bite at the cherry is a questionable use of local taxpayers’ money in a case that is already understood to have cost more than £1m.
It also raises concerns about the equality of access to the criminal justice system, when a rich, Tory cider baron has the clout to get a case re-opened by lobbying his chums in government and Avon and Somerset police to put their specialist organised crime team on the case.
The CPS and Avon & Somerset police declined to comment.
Typically, Rees has a blunt take on these latest developments. ‘Madness isn’t it,’ he told the Cable. ‘Not only have they been made to look utter cunts already, but they want to go through it all again.’
Separately, Rees is planning a private prosecution of David Cook. And next week, he is back in London’s high court where a judge will decide how much compensation the Met should pay him and the Vians.
Rees wants £475,000. The Met has offered £175,000. Legal fees are expected to top £1m. Again, the poor taxpayer is footing the bill for police corruption and state cover up in this new low in the Morgan saga.
The independent panel into the Met’s handing of the murder that Theresa May set up in 2013 is another drain on the taxpayer after seven years and is unlikely to report before the prime minister is axed by her own Cabinet. Part of the delay is said to be Cook’s availability for interview and the Met’s reluctance to disclose paperwork.
In the interim, Isobel Morgan, Daniel’s mother, died aged 89 never seeing justice for her son and surviving siblings.
Dark Arts is a tale of private investigators, police corruption, political pressure, and a mansion in the Somerset hills revealed over three parts in a true crime series by the Bristol Cable.
Crown Prosecution Service