Gang guilty of Britain's biggest heist

LONDON (Reuters) - Five men were found guilty on Monday of kidnap and robbery in the country’s biggest ever heist, a daring, 53 million pound raid on a cash depot in Kent.

Seen in a combination photo from police handouts, (from left) Stuart Royle, Jetmir Bucpapa, Lea Rusha, Ermir Hysenaj, and Roger Coutts. REUTERS/Kent Police/Handout

The robbers, some dressed as policemen and most wearing prosthetic disguises, snatched the record haul after getting past tight security by kidnapping the depot’s manager, his wife and son at gunpoint.

They were also helped by an “inside man”, who not only provided details of the building’s interior layout and security protocols, but also secretly filmed it using a tiny camera hidden on his belt.

Despite the elaborate planning, the gang was rounded up by police within days of the February 2006 raid at the Securitas Depot in Tonbridge, after detectives received a tip-off.

Stuart Royle, 49, Jetmir Bucpapa, 26, Lea Rusha, 35, Ermir Hysenaj, 28, and Roger Coutts, 30, were convicted at the Old Bailey of conspiracy to kidnap, conspiracy to rob and conspiracy to possess firearms.

Another defendant, John Fowler, 59, was cleared of those charges while Keith Borer, 54, was found not guilty of handling stolen goods.

Sentence will be passed on Tuesday.

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The men had denied all charges but prosecutors said forensic discoveries and detailed phone records linked them to the crime.

However the most damning evidence came from make-up artist and hairdresser Michelle Hogg, 33, who had applied the men’s disguises two days before the plot during a 24-hour make-up session.

Hogg, who is now in a witness protection scheme, had faced the same charges but testified against the others after the prosecution agreed to drop its case against her half way through the trial.

She revealed how she had made false noses, chins, beards, moustaches and bald caps for a number of the gang members, describing how she had even used her bra straps and baby bottle teats as part of the disguises.

The robbery began on the evening of February 21 when depot manager Colin Dixon was stopped on his way back to his home by two men dressed as policemen. He was then taken at gunpoint to an isolated farm.

Other men, also dressed as policemen, arrived at Dixon’s home and abducted his wife and child, taking them to the farm after telling them Dixon was in hospital following a car crash.

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In the early hours of the next morning the gang, dressed in black, wearing balaclavas and brandishing weapons including a shotgun and submachine gun, arrived at the depot which stockpiles cash for banks and large retailers.

They bound the 14 employees there while they loaded the cash into a large waiting lorry. The terrified staff were told they would be killed unless they did what they were told.

The men left with 52,996,760 pounds, leaving behind another 153,833,020.73 pounds.

So far detectives have recovered 21 million pounds and the search for the remaining missing millions goes on.

“As far as I’m concerned the investigation continues,” Michael Fuller, Chief Constable of Kent Police,” told reporters, saying there were potential leads as to its whereabouts.

The focus of the search is Cyprus and Morocco, from where detectives are trying to extradite two men suspected of being leading members of the plot and where they have seized houses and cars suspected of having been bought with the loot.

Another suspect, builder Sean Lupton, is thought to be in north Cyprus after skipping police bail following his arrest on suspicion of conspiracy to rob, and some of the money is also thought to be on the Mediterranean island.

Reporting by Andrew Hough; Editing by Steve Addison