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?
Part two is out Thursday 9 May: The troubled cop bent on solving the UK’s longest running murder case; a key player in the phone hacking scandal and a costly prosecution in Bristol.