He was a boy who left school at fifteen without being able to read or write, wound up ranking alongside the Queen on the Sunday Times Rich List, and finally met a brutal end at the hands of an unknown assassin. This is the incredible story of John Palmer, the real-life Goldfinger.
The petty crook done good
Born in Solihull in 1950, John Palmer had a tough upbringing. One of seven children in a dirt-poor household, he wore hand-me-down clothes, often went without food, and never learnt to read. But Palmer, whose father had allegedly been a member of the notorious 'Peaky Blinders' street gang, was determined to do well for himself, by fair means or foul.
After leaving school he became a wheeler-dealer, selling everything from paraffin to scrap metal to jewellery, while also getting involved in petty theft and mingling with local gangsters. He eventually established a gold and jewellery dealing company in Bristol, and business was good. So good, in fact, that he settled into a Georgian manor in Bath. A far cry from where he grew up, this luxury pile came under the coppers’ cross-hairs following the biggest heist in British history.
In November 1983, six armed robbers burst into a Heathrow warehouse owned by the Brink’s-Mat security and logistics company. They expected to find a nice heap of Spanish currency. What they actually found was three tonnes of gold bullion, worth around £26 million (close to £100 million in today’s money).
It was an unexpected and shocking windfall, but making off with the gold was the easy part. The hard part was working out how to sell the stuff without attracting attention from the law. A tall order for a motley bunch of crooks with no experience of handling gold.
Enter John Palmer, whose shady connections brought him into the orbit of the robbers. It fell to him to smelt down the gold in a crucible on the grounds of his sprawling estate, thereby rendering the gold untraceable and ‘legitimate’. This was a complex operation that saw Palmer work alongside other key underworld figures like Kenneth Noye, who was later banged up for murdering a stranger in a road rage attack, and Brian Reader, who went on to mastermind the infamous Hatton Garden heist in 2015.
A narrow escape
In 1985, Palmer and his family jetted off for a sun-soaked holiday in Tenerife – and not a moment too soon. Police, who’d got wise to what was going on, raided his home and discovered the smelting equipment. While some of his colleagues at the gold trading company were nicked, Palmer himself was untouchable in Spain – at least for the time being.
Showing his usual entrepreneurial zeal, he decided to get into the timeshare business, selling holiday properties to tourists. However, he became concerned about being extradited back to the UK and decided to escape to Brazil – only to be refused entry because his passport had expired.
Forced to return to the UK and face trial in 1987 for handling the stolen gold, Palmer’s luck had seemingly run out. Except it hadn’t. He managed to persuade the court that, while he had indeed smelted a whole lot of gold on his estate, he had no idea it was the Brink’s-Mat haul. Blowing a kiss to jurors on the way out, Palmer was ready to resume his other enterprise: ripping off his timeshare buyers in Spain.
The timeshare kingpin
With his private jet, superyacht and classic car collection, John Palmer looked like he’d struck gold as a legitimate businessman in Spain. In fact, the gargantuan profits that earned him a place alongside the Queen on the Sunday Times Rich List largely flowed from the pockets of people he’d ruthlessly defrauded.
The scheme was simple. Palmer’s smooth-talking sales team approached holidaymakers who already had timeshares and persuaded them to buy new ones (owned by Palmer), while also promising that they could sell their old timeshares for a profit to other companies.
In fact, these other companies were also owned by Palmer, and there was no intention of reselling the old timeshares. This left the targets saddled with two properties to pay for. An estimated 20,000 holidaymakers, many of them elderly, were swindled this way.
Police initially investigated Palmer’s Spanish exploits on the assumption that he was laundering drug profits. They soon realised the timeshare business was itself the big money-maker, and Palmer was arrested and brought back to the UK to face trial.
This time he wasn’t able to blag his way to acquittal. In 2001, the man once nicknamed ‘Goldfinger’ was handed an eight-year jail term.
The bloody aftermath
Palmer was investigated again for fraud in the years after his release, but his criminal activities caught up with him in June 2015, when he was murdered in the garden of his Essex home.
He was shot six times in what was a clean, efficient, gangland execution, and the killer has never been found. Since then, there’s been much speculation over precisely why he was killed.
Some believe Palmer was targeted because he’d been about to turn police grass to get himself off the hook in a new fraud investigation. Another possibility is that he was killed because of an alleged connection to the Hatton Garden job, which had been carried out by his old Brink’s-Mat compatriot Brian Reader just months before Palmer’s killing. Or perhaps the Russian mob was involved?
The theories are tantalising. However, the chances are we’ll never know who ordered the hit on the man who came from nowhere to become Britain’s wealthiest villain.