The Day That Changed the City of London
It was a sunny and calm morning on May 2, 1990, in the heart of London’s financial district. John Goddard, a 58-year-old messenger for Sheppards, a money broker firm, had a briefcase full of valuable documents. He had to deliver 301 bearer bonds, each worth £1 million, to various banks and institutions in the City. He had done this routine many times before, and he felt confident and secure. Little did he know that he was about to become the victim of one of the biggest robberies in history.
As he walked along Nicholas Lane, a narrow and quiet side street, he noticed a man walking behind him. He thought nothing of it, until a man suddenly appeared and mugged Goddard at knifepoint and ran away. Someone stunned and left Goddard helpless on the pavement.
A diverse and dangerous crew of criminals planned and executed the operation carefully. They came from London’s underworld, New York’s mafia, Irish republicans, and Colombian drug lords. The heist shook the City of London and triggered a massive and complex investigation across several countries and years.
Bearer Bonds: The Ultimate Prize for Thieves
The nature of the bonds that were stolen made the robbery so lucrative and appealing to the thieves. They were bearer bonds, a type of fixed-income security that whoever holds them owns, rather than a registered owner. They can transfer or sell them without any trace or record, making them ideal for anonymity and tax evasion. Coupons attached to them also allow the holders to redeem them for interest payments at regular intervals. Bearer bonds are essentially like cash, but with a much higher value and yield.
Bearer bonds were once very popular and widely issued by corporations and governments, especially in Europe and the US. However, they also posed many problems and risks, such as loss, theft, forgery, money laundering, and terrorism financing. As a result, many countries have banned or restricted their issuance and trade since the 1980s. In fact, the UK had stopped issuing bearer bonds in 1982, eight years before the robbery. The stolen bonds in 1990 were among the last ones in circulation, and they would expire in 1993. Their rarity and value attracted the thieves, who had to cash in quickly..
The Fake Mugging: A Perfect Crime or a Flawed Plan?
The robbery seemed like a random mugging, but the robbers planned and watched for months. The mastermind behind the heist was Keith Cheeseman, a 43-year-old Londoner with a history of fraud and theft. After learning the messenger’s routine and route, he hired Patrick Thomas, a 35-year-old Irish mugger.
Media stories in January 1990 said a courier lost £4 million (worth £10 million in 2021) in bearer bonds on the way to the Bank of England. This inspired the robbery. A surveyor, aged 23, found the four certificates of deposit on Throgmorton Street outside the Stock Exchange. They had slipped out of the briefcase of a courier who worked for Rowe & Pitman, a subsidiary of S. G. Warburg & Co. He returned them and received a magnum of Laurent-Perrier champagne as a reward.
On May 2, 1990, Patrick Thomas followed Goddard as he left his office with the briefcase of bonds. He snatched the briefcase and ran away when they reached Nicholas Lane, a secluded and quiet street.
The robbery was so quick and smooth that it seemed like a perfect crime. However, it also had some flaws and mistakes that would eventually lead to its unraveling. Patrick Thomas dropped his knife during the struggle with Goddard, and the police later recovered and used it as evidence. Goddard reported the incident to his boss and the police. He had noticed Patrick Thomas’s Irish accent, which made him suspicious. The thieves overvalued and had trouble selling the bonds, which attracted various law enforcement agencies and criminal organizations worldwide.
The Suspects: A Diverse and Dangerous Crew
The City bonds robbery involved a diverse and dangerous crew of criminals from different backgrounds and countries. Keith Cheeseman, a Londoner with a long criminal record of fraud and theft, led and planned the heist. He hired Patrick Thomas, an Irishman with IRA connections, who did the fake mugging.
More than these two men were involved in the robbery. They had associates and intermediaries who sold and distributed the bonds to various criminal groups worldwide. John Mathewson, a Scottish businessman with contacts in the New York mafia, especially the Lucchese crime family, was one of them. He sold some of the bonds to the mobsters, who laundered money from their illegal activities with them. Another associate was Michael Demitrius, a Greek-Cypriot who had ties to the Colombian drug cartels. He sold some of the bonds to the drug lords, who financed their operations with them.
The suspects were a diverse and dangerous crew, with connections to notorious and powerful criminal organizations worldwide. Greed, ambition, and ideology motivated them, and they took huge risks and faced deadly consequences for their prize.
The Distribution: A Global Network of Crime
The thieves sold the bonds to various criminal groups worldwide who paid a fraction of their value. The distribution was complex and risky. It involved travelling to different countries, meeting with shady contacts, and avoiding the authorities. The thieves had to act fast, as they knew that the bonds would expire in 1993 and become worthless.
Keith Cheeseman’s associate, John Mathewson, sold some of the bonds to the Lucchese crime family, one of New York’s five mafia families. The mobsters used the bonds to launder money from their illegal activities, such as gambling, extortion, and drug trafficking. The FBI, who had been alerted by the British authorities, caught them when they tried to cash in some of the coupons for interest payments.
Another destination was Colombia, where Michael Demitrius, Cheeseman’s associate, sold some of the bonds to the Medellín cartel, a powerful and violent drug cartel. The drug lords used the bonds to finance their operations, such as producing and smuggling cocaine. The Colombian police, tipped off by the US authorities, intercepted them when they tried to redeem some coupons for interest.
Other destinations for the bonds included Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus Turkey, Lebanon, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The thieves sold some of them to various criminal groups, such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), who used them to fund their armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. They also sold some of them to legitimate businesses and individuals, who were unaware of their origin or status.
The distribution of the bonds was a global network of crime, that involved some of the most notorious and dangerous criminals in the world. It was also a game of cat and mouse, that involved some of the most diligent and determined law enforcement agencies in the world.
The Recovery: A Race Against Time and Odds
The City of London Police were not fooled by the fake mugging that took place on May 2, 1990. They soon understood that it was a sophisticated and organized robbery that involved a large amount of bearer bonds. A massive and complex investigation that would become one of the most successful and remarkable in their history followed. They had to act fast, as they knew that the bonds would soon be sold and dispersed around the world. They also faced many challenges and obstacles, such as international jurisdiction, lack of cooperation, false leads, and threats from the criminals.
The police were able to recover most of the bonds, thanks to their diligence, determination, and collaboration with other law enforcement agencies and financial institutions. They used various methods and strategies, such as tracing the serial numbers of the bonds, following the money trail, infiltrating the criminal network, offering rewards and immunity, and conducting raids and arrests. They also received some help from unexpected sources, such as informers, whistleblowers, and rival gangs.
By the end of 1990, the police had recovered 271 out of the 301 bonds, worth £271 million. By 1993, when the bonds expired, they had recovered 296 out of the 301 bonds, worth £296 million. Only five bonds remained missing, worth £5 million. The recovery rate was an impressive 98%, making it one of the most successful recoveries of stolen property in history.
The City bonds robbery: What happened to the suspects?
In his book Born Gangster, Jimmy Tippett Junior, a career criminal, claims that Patrick Thomas showed him the stolen bonds in a toilet soon after the heist. The police arrested Tippett but cleared him of any involvement. Someone shot Thomas dead at his doorstep in 1991.
Keith Cheeseman, a notorious conman and another key player, fled to Tenerife after the UK police nabbed him, fearing for his life. He thought they suspected him to be the Bolney Torso, a mutilated body found in Sussex. The Spanish police later tracked him down and arrested him. Cheeseman faced money laundering charges in the US and got six and a half years in prison.
John Traynor, who used the stolen bonds to secure a fraudulent mortgage, got seven years for handling stolen goods. He escaped from jail after 18 months and remained on the run until 2010, when he was caught in the Netherlands and sent back to the UK to finish his sentence.
Conclusion: The Impact and Legacy of the Heist
The City bonds robbery was a heist that changed the City of London, and left a lasting mark on history and culture. As a remarkable crime and recovery, it left a significant impact and legacy on various aspects of society and culture. The heist affected the lives and fates of the criminals who participated in it, as well as the achievements and efforts of the authorities who investigated it. The development and regulation of the financial market, as well as the curiosity and interest of the public, were also influenced by it.