The story of the largest gold heist in British history is a cautionary tale about how tenuous the concept of 'honour amongst thieves' is, especially when the prize is worth a staggering £26 million. However, it seems there was stupidity on all sides. Despite the short sightedness of some of the criminals involved, throwing around money like water, the police nevertheless failed to catch the majority of those involved in the raid and subsequent distribution, nor have they ever managed to recover the bulk of the bullion.
At 6.30 am on 26 November 1983, a South London gang of six armed robbers, headed by Brian Robinson and Mickey McAvoy, broke into the Brinks Mat warehouse at Heathrow Airport, expecting to make off with about £3 million in cash. Inside help was provided by Anthony Black, a Brinks Mat security guard who happened to be living with Brian Robinson’s sister at the time.
Black’s information gave the gang quick access to the site, where they overpowered the guards and encouraged them to provide the combination to the safe, by pouring petrol over them and threatening to set them alight.
Black’s information also assisted with the disarming of a vast array of electronic security systems and, when the safe was finally opened, the expected piles of easily transported cash turned out to be 6,800 gold bars divided into 76 cases, as well as a stash of £100,000 worth of cut and uncut diamonds, all bound for the Far East. It quickly became apparent that the transport of many tonnes of gold would be challenging, and the quick 'smash and grab' became a protracted operation, as several members of the gang were sent to seek sturdier transport.
The gang used the warehouse’s forklift truck to load the gold into the getaway van but it still took them almost two hours to clear the safe of its contents. By 8.15 am they left the Brinks Mat warehouse, and the alarm was raised by one of the guards at 8.30 am.The conversion of £26 million worth of bullion into cash was to prove a major headache for the gang and they were forced to approach a senior underworld figure, known only as 'The Fox'. He had the necessary gangland connections to smelt down and distribute the gold, specifically with the assistance of the Adams family, one of London’s most notorious crime syndicates. They recruited a jeweller named Solly Nahome, who agreed to sell on the smelted down goods.
26 November 1983: gang break into the Brinks Mat warehouse at Heathrow Airport
December 1984:- McAvoy and Robinson jailed for 25 years
January 1985: Noye discovered DC John Fordham in his garden at his Kent home and stabbed the officer to death
1986: Noye put on trail, following the discovery of 11 bars of gold in his home. He received a 14-year prison sentence
1990: Kenneth Noye released, but 10 years later was convicted of murdering Stephen Cameron in a road-rage incident on the M2516 November 2001 - Brian Perry gunned down
After realising that the game was up, McAvoy hoped to use his considerable newly found wealth to negotiate a lighter sentence, so he placed his faith in the 'honour amongst thieves' maxim, and entrusted his share of the gold with a variety of friends for safekeeping, including one named Brian Perry.
In December 1984, following their trial, both McAvoy and Robinson were jailed for 25 years.Not surprisingly, when McAvoy sought to reclaim his property to negotiate a reduced sentence, neither gold nor money was forthcoming. McAvoy felt betrayed by Perry, who was subsequently arrested for handling the gold. Perry’s life was threatened during his trial, for failing to return the property and, after serving a nine-year sentence, he was gunned down on 16 November 2001 shortly after his release.
Despite the incarceration of Robinson and McAvoy, the police made scant headway in the search for the missing bullion, which still required conversion into cash. Perry recruited Kenneth Noye into the ever-growing circle of Brinks Mat associates. Noye appeared to have some expertise in the gold smelting trade, as well as connections with John Palmer, the owner of a Bristol-based gold dealership.
Noye's brilliant idea was to introduce copper into the gold during the smelting process, thereby altering its carat rating, making it virtually untraceable. What he had in technical expertise, however, he lacked in pure common sense, and he was caught when the gang withdrew £3 million in cash from a single bank branch in Bristol, a sum so large that the Treasury and police became involved.
In January 1985, during an undercover operation, Noye discovered DC John Fordham in his garden at his Kent home and, in the row that ensued, the officer was stabbed to death. Noye was arrested for murder but at his trial, the jury believed the defence case that he acted in self-defence, and he was acquitted by a majority decision.
Following the discovery of 11 bars of gold in his home, Noye was on trail again in 1986, along with one of the Adam’s family, Thomas Adams, which led to his conviction of conspiracy to handle the Brinks Mat gold, in addition to VAT evasion charges. He received a 14-year prison sentence and was also fined a total of £700,000.He was released in 1990, but ten years later was convicted of murdering Stephen Cameron, in a road-rage incident on the M25,.
Police estimate that 15 people were involved in the planning of the Brinks Mat robbery but only three of the gang members were ever convicted. Despite concerted efforts to bring the rest to justice and investigative work spanning two decades, the police have been forced to accept that the majority of the loot has been spirited away to foreign safety deposits or simply recycled into the wider London jewellery trade, providing for the comfortable old age of a number of criminals still at large.
Scotland Yard Flying Squad Chief Commander Frank Cater was appointed to lead the hunt for the thieves. Given the boldness and highly skilled nature of the operation, the police were quickly able to narrow down the list of potential suspects to McAvoy and Robinson, who had not been particularly secretive about recruiting participants for a rumoured 'inside job' that they had planned. Robinson, whose nickname was 'The Colonel', was already well known to the police, while McAvoy was considered to be one of South London's most prolific armed robbers.
Quickly realising that the sheer knowledge available to the gang pointed to an insider participant, the police soon came across Anthony Black, who had been late to work on the day of the robbery and who had missed the entire heist. The connection to Robinson’s sister led to a swift confession by Black, who gave up the names of the newly wealthy McAvoy and Robinson.
Neither McAvoy nor Robinson helped themselves by 'laying low'. Within weeks of the heist, both moved from humble South London council houses to a grand estate in Kent, paid for in cash. Rumours that McAvoy had bought two Rottweiler dogs to protect his mansion and named them 'Brinks' and 'Mat', did not win him any awards for subtlety.
The Key Figures
Brian Robinson: Gang member
Mickey McAvoy: Gang member
Anthony Black: Brinks Mat security guard who provided inside help
Solly Nahome: Jeweller who agreed to sell on the smelted down goods'The Fox' and 'The Adams Family' - approached for their gangland connections to help smelt down and distribute the gold
Brian Perry: Passed the gold for safekeeping
Kenneth Noye: Recruited for his knowledge of the gold smelting trade
John Palmer: Owner of a Bristol-based gold dealership
Scotland Yard Flying Squad Chief Commander Frank Cater: Appointed to lead the hunt for the thieves
DC John Fordham: Stabbed to death by Kenneth Noye