December 9 2013 Latest news:
Peter Walsh, Crime correspondent
Monday, August 12, 2013
A former Norfolk detective has told of his nine-year Trans-Atlantic pursuit of members of an organised gang who were jailed for more than 40 years for their part in conning UK investors out of more than £80m.
Richard Pope, Paul Gunter and Simon Odoni had lived luxurious lifestyles featuring fast cars, speedboats and yachts until they were jailed for a total of 43 years at a Florida court earlier this month.
It followed an investigation which started in Norfolk but later involved the City of London Police, US federal law enforcement agencies, Serious Fraud Office, Spanish National Police and Suffolk police.
Gunter, 64, and Odoni, 56, went on trial in March and were jailed for 25 years and 13 years respectively after being found guilty of mail fraud, money laundering and wire fraud charges, while Pope, 55, was sentenced to four years nine months after admitting conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
Giving evidence at the trial was Paul Cook, a former fraud squad officer with Norfolk police, who interviewed Gunter and arranged for his laptop, phone and memory stick to be seized after he was arrested at Gatwick Airport in 2007 while returning from honeymoon in Paris.
For Mr Cook, who was a detective constable with the Norfolk force, the trial in the US was the culmination of almost a decade of work spent investigating what turned out to be one of the UK’s biggest ever scams.
Mr Cook, who retired two years ago but who has since rejoined the force as a civilian fraud investigator, began investigating the fraud in 2004.
But little did he know that those investigations into a Norfolk company almost a decade ago would take him not only across the UK, but to Barcelona in Spain and to the United States as well.
And what Mr Cook, together with officers from Suffolk and other agencies both in this country and across the world unearthed, was to shock them all. They uncovered how at least 2,300 people in the UK, mostly retired professionals, lost money to the boiler room fraud, with individual losses ranging from a few hundred pounds up to a million pounds.
The origins of the fraud date back to 2004 when Pope, originally from St Albans, Gunter, originally from London, and Odoni, originally from Hertfordshire, and their co-conspirators acquired previously hijacked dormant, public-traded companies in the US which they utilised to sell UK investors worthless stock.
They facilitated the fraudulent scheme by coordinating a network of Spanish boiler rooms employing hundreds of people to ruthlessly target investors using high pressure and misleading sales techniques.
The stolen funds were used to expand the criminal network and pay for extravagant lifestyles for the gang that included a £350,000 private jet, 26 properties in the US and three in the Dominican Republic, and a number of high value cars and speed boats.
Mr Cook, who revealed the seizure of Gunter’s memory stick was of great significance to the US authorities as it provided them with vital information, said he was delighted at the result – and the part Norfolk had to play. He said: “Norfolk obviously is a relatively small rural force and the number of victims in Norfolk was relatively small, but without Norfolk stepping up to the plate and getting the inquiry started, these individuals would have got away with it.”
He added: “I was very pleased that they’ve been removed from the public arena so they can’t prey on further victims.” It was in 2004 that Mr Cook first started to look into a company in Norfolk which had some unusual activity in its bank accounts.
He said: “I made some inquiries about a company that suddenly started receiving large sums of money.
“There didn’t seem to be a reason, it didn’t seem to be a trading company.
“It didn’t seem to buy or sell anything, so why was all this money coming in? It was about £250,000 so I contacted the bank that had received all the money. They were a bit perplexed because from a completely dormant account it had turned into £250,000.” Mr Cook, who at the time was carrying out an investigation into money laundering, started investigating the company and served orders on the bank to obtain records and then contacted one of the people who had paid money into the account who lived in Norfolk. He went to see the “investor” and told the individual what had been happening before, swearing him to secrecy, and getting more information which led Mr Cook to more companies in the UK carrying out similar activities and seeking further orders from banks.
Mr Cook’s investigations, and the discovery of Spanish phone numbers, led him to realise that it was going to be a “bigger inquiry” than they could deal with alone and so they contacted the serious fraud office, who would take it on as long as Norfolk and Suffolk officers provided assistance.
By 2005, Mr Cook said they had identified 45 individuals who were “integral” to the running of the scam which led to a series of operations up until about 2008 which resulted in several people being arrested and interviewed. It was then that Mr Cook went to Spain, accompanied by representatives from the serious fraud office, as a “significant amount of intelligence” identified six premises of interest in Barcelona. Searches of the premises, which were thought to be “boiler rooms”, were later carried out and resulted in the seizure of about a tonne of material – paper and computers – which contained numbers of people to ring, a chart with false names used by the con men with real names alongside, and transcripts.
Mr Cook said the transcripts contained “prepared pitches” to would-be investors with details of what to ask and what to say if the person said they were not interested.
The transcripts were described by Mr Cook as “hard sell, ruthless pitches” with some even containing notes with “abusive remarks about the investor”.
He said: “It was obvious they were targeting vulnerable, elderly people saving for their retirement.”