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.’
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 bill
Detectives 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.