Heist gang was no "Oceans 11"

LONDON (Reuters) - A gang of armed robbers, some masquerading as police officers, others wearing elaborate prosthetic disguises, an inside man and a 53 million pound cash haul -- it sounds like a Hollywood film plot.

But the stunning raid on a depot in Kent which netted the gang Britain’s record cash heist had none of the glamour of a movie, according to the officials who brought them to justice.

Chief Crown Prosecutor Roger Coe-Salazar said because of the sheer scale of the haul and the manner in which the men had carried out the caper, there might be a temptation to romanticise the crime.

But he said the fact they had taken the depot’s manager hostage and threatened his wife and young son at gunpoint showed that the gang were no “Ocean’s Eleven”, a reference to the movie about a group of con artists starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

“I would like to make it clear there was nothing romantic or victimless about a 7-year-old child being held at gunpoint by a masked man,” Coe-Salazar said.

“This was a callous and highly dangerous crime.”

Certainly though, the heist had all the elements that would appeal to a film scriptwriter.

The gang, who began their planning more than six months beforehand, recruited a worker at the depot, Albanian Emir Hysenaj to carry out surveillance and provide details of the building and its security systems.

He used a miniature video recorder hidden in his belt.

Meanwhile other members of the outfit, which police believe involved around 15 people altogether, also used secret cameras to stake out the home of the depot’s manager Colin Dixon.

Adding to the movie script aura were the nicknames detectives gave the masked or disguised robbers captured on closed circuit TV footage from cameras inside the depot.

There was “Policeman”, a bogus officer who helped abduct Dixon, “Hoodie”, “Stopwatch”, “Shorty”, “Mr Average”, “Driver” and “High Viz”, named after his bright security jacket.

Finally to ensure they wouldn’t be recognised, the robbers who needed to show their faces wore prosthetic disguises made by hairdresser Michelle Hogg.

Hogg was not only a central figure in the gang’s preparations, she also dramatically turned on her co-defendants during their trial when the prosecution decided to drop charges against her in return for her cooperation.

The former sales assistant told the court how she had created masks using latex to make false noses and chins, dyed the men’s hair and gave them fake moustaches and beards.

She even used one of her bra straps to change the appearance of the eyes of one of the men. The disguises took 10 days to make and the process of applying them, two days before the raid, lasted almost 24 hours, she told jurors.

Hogg is now in a witness protection scheme and Coe-Salazar admitted it had been a lengthy decision on whether to press ahead with charges against her.

But he said because of the size and complexity of case, Hogg’s evidence had made them more confident they would get the guilty verdicts returned against five suspects on Monday.

“She put names to individuals. I felt it was worth it,” he said. Despite all their intricate planning and attempts to avoid detection, the gang were rounded up just days afterwards.

Mick Judge, the detective who heads the investigation, said their breakthrough had been “a bit of an old cliche”.

“We acted on information received,” he said, refusing to disclose where the tip-off had come from but adding there was a possibility that some reward money could be paid out.

Judge said there had been “very sophisticated preparation and also some really silly mistakes”, suggesting the gang may have actually stolen too much.

“It’s a lot of money to manage. I think it was clever in parts and very naive in others,” he told reporters.

“With something like this, there’s a lot of preparatory work that went on and it’s very, very difficult to cover your tracks.” The police investigation, which has already cost more than 3 million pounds, is still far from over.

Officers are still hunting one man, builder Sean Lupton, who is believed to be in north Cyprus after fleeing the country, and are trying to extradite two other leading suspects from Morocco.

Others believed to have been involved in the scam are already due to go on trial later in the year.

“I’m confident we have got the main people,” Judge said.

Meanwhile the search for the remainder of the money goes on. Detectives have found 21 million pounds in cash and have seized two villas and flat in Morocco, along with two Mercedes cars, one appropriately a gold colour, and bank accounts there.

“It’s very difficult to say where else money may have gone at this time,” Judge said.

“The investigation is ongoing and we will follow any line if inquiry to find that money.”

Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Andrew Hough and Steve Addison