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The main suspect in Britain’s longest running murder investigation is seeking damages following his acquittal over the stolen art collection of cider baron and former Tory MP Esmond Bulmer.

A notorious private investigator wrongly accused of being involved in the £2 million heist of a private art collection belonging to the Bulmer cider family is preparing to sue Avon and Somerset police and prosecutors for damages.

The case against Jonathan Rees, which has already cost the local taxpayer an estimated £1 million, was quietly dropped last week by the Bristol Complex Case Unit after a three-year legal battle.

Rees will now seek substantial compensation through the civil court, which it is hoped will shine light on the curious decision making in this strangest of cases that the Cable first exclusively reported in its Dark Arts true crime series earlier this year. 

It can now be reported that prosecutors ignored damning criticisms by four senior judges about the quality of evidence against Rees and continued throwing money at the case until their humiliating climbdown last Wednesday at Bristol crown court.

Jonathan Rees

The private detective says he is the victim of a “vendetta” by London’s Metropolitan police, who separately have been trying for three decades to convict him for the axe murder of his business partner, Daniel Morgan, a crime he strongly denies.

That case is the longest running unsolved murder in British policing history and a major embarrassment for the Met and crown prosecution service (CPS) whose efforts have been mired by incompetence, corruption and cover ups.

Kieran Galvin, Rees’ barrister, who confirmed that a claim for damages is underway, said: “The case in Bristol against my client is a scandal, a significant waste of public funds and a serious and deleterious affront to justice.”

The private investigator believes Avon and Somerset police were pressured by the Met to pursue the art heist case against him.

The Bulmer art heist

Rees was being prosecuted over his role in the recovery of a private art collection stolen in 2009 from the Somerset mansion of Esmond Bulmer, the cider baron and former Tory MP. 

Court documents show there was liaison between the two forces, but the CPS redacted discussions about Rees when the documents were disclosed to his legal team in preparation for the trial last year. 

The court file also shows that Bulmer lobbied then home secretary Theresa May and the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police to investigate the theft after describing initial efforts by Yeovil police as “brain dead”.

A new team of organised crime detectives based at Portishead HQ were appointed but remained largely clueless until Rees came forward in July 2015 with information about the whereabouts of the paintings. 

The private investigator is a resourceful operator with connections in the underworld, law enforcement and the press. He featured prominently during the inquiry by Lord Leveson into media standards due to his work for The News of The World.

On this occasion, Rees was acting as an intermediary for an ex-SAS soldier who had access to those controlling the stolen Bulmer art collection.

Between July and August 2015, the pair recovered 11 of the 12 stolen paintings. Avon and Somerset police oversaw the recovery and the National Crime Agency authorised the payment of a £175,000 reward by the insurance company Hiscox. They were happy to recover the art having already paid out £1.2 million to Bulmer immediately following the robbery. 

However, in August 2016 Rees was suddenly arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit fraud on the insurance firm. 

At the time of his arrest, Rees was suing the Met for malicious prosecution and misfeasance in a public office in relation to the Morgan murder. That trial had collapsed in 2011, largely due to police corruption by the senior officer in the case. 

Photograph of stolen artwork, displayed next to a copy of the Sun newspaper

The Met was facing a substantial damages claim and, to make matters worse, Theresa May had ordered an inquiry into corruption in the Morgan murder, which is due to report this year.

Rees said: “The Met provided a substantial amount of historic documents from the Morgan murder trial in order to persuade the Bristol prosecutors and police to ensure they continued the case against me. I was informed by an Avon and Somerset officer that the Met wanted the case to continue as it undermined my civil case against them.”

Acquitted but not off the hook

The Bulmer case was weak from the start and then fatally undermined at trial when two key prosecution witnesses told the jury that Rees had acted as an “honest broker”. 

Judge Lambert threw out the case and acquitted all defendants on 6 July 2018. The trial judge went on to blast the prosecution case as having no more than “fragments of suspicion and coincidences”. Evidence, he said, was “signally lacking” and amounted to “conjectural theorising”. 

However, the CPS surprised many by immediately appealing Lambert’s ruling. But in February 2019 the appeal court ruled that Lambert was correct to throw out the case. Three judges described the prosecution case as “unacceptably tenuous” and “nowhere near” meeting legal requirements.

In normal circumstances such judicial condemnation would signal the end. But instead, the CPS announced in April 2019 that it was going to prosecute Rees on a new charge of perverting the course of justice.

“The case in Bristol against my client is a scandal, a significant waste of public funds and a serious and deleterious affront to justice.”

By this time, the CPS had appointed a new lead prosecutor because Stephen Mooney QC had been made a judge. A new trial was set for January 2020. 

This decision-making by the CPS in Bristol was done against the backdrop of serious embarrassment for the CPS and the Met in London.

Firstly, Rees’ acquittal in the art heist case coincided with him winning his malicious prosecution claim over the Morgan murder.

Therefore, when the Bristol CPS decided to appeal Lambert’s judgment, their colleagues in London were already looking at ways to reduce the compensation pay out due to Rees. 

“The Met would have to pay fewer damages to Rees if they could show he had a propensity for on-going criminality – a conviction in Bristol would help them,” Rees’ barrister explained. 

He believes this could well explain why the CPS in Bristol took the remarkable decision to bring a new charge against Rees for perverting the course of justice and keep the art heist case alive.

Daniel Morgan. Photograph: New Scotland Yard/ PA

The Morgan case: corruption and compensation

The decision was all the more peculiar because in London the CPS had already decided in November 2018 not to prosecute Dave Cook, the senior officer in the Morgan case, for a similar offence.

Cook’s corrupt acts had collapsed the murder trial and led to a finding of malicious prosecution. Five high court judges said he had perverted the course of justice by coaching witnesses to implicate Rees and others in the murder. 

Nevertheless, the CPS in London decided there was insufficient evidence and it was not in the public interest to prosecute Cook for perverting the course of justice. 

The retired officer refuses to comment but a source close to Cook said he had made it clear to the Met that if he stood trial he was not going quietly.

In a further twist, the CPS claimed on 13 June 2019 in a letter to Rees, who had asked for a review, that Cook’s conduct didn’t reach “the high level of culpability calculated to injure the public interest so as to call for condemnation and punishment”. 

But weeks later on 31 July, that was exactly why Mrs Justice Chema-Grubb awarded Rees £155,000 in damages for malicious prosecution. £50,000 was punitive damages to show the court’s concern at Cook’s conduct. 

Her ruling said: “Adequate punishment and public censure requires a separate award of exemplary damages to mark the court’s denunciation of DCS Cook’s unconstitutional behaviour as an agent of the state … This award is to highlight and condemn the egregious and shameful police behaviour of a senior and experienced police officer. He was warned about his behaviour on several occasions and misled superior officers. Axiomatically, honest belief in guilt cannot justify prosecuting a suspect on false evidence … there is no place for any form of ‘noble-cause’ justification for corrupt practices in those trusted to uphold the law.”

With the Met’s fight lost – it is estimated that the Morgan case has cost near to £100 million –  on 24 October the CPS in Bristol quietly offered no evidence against Rees over the Bulmer art heist.

If they hoped this would draw a line, they are wrong as Rees is preparing to sue. 

At the time of publishing, the Bristol Complex Case Unit had not replied to the Cable’s request for comment.

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