By Harry Mottram: It will be eight years this June that former Bath resident and fraudster John Palmer was shot dead at his Essex home. The hitman who has yet to be caught made sure of the assignation by pumping six bullets into Palmer with an 8mm pistol. It came as no surprise to his victims as Palmer had many enemies having defrauded 20,000 people of their life savings in a time share scam in Spain raking in millions of pounds in cash. And there was a question mark over his involvement in numerous armed robberies and missing millions in cash – suggesting the criminal underworld also had a grudge against him.
Palmer lived in a large, detached home in Battlefields, Lansdown, Bath, where he melted down the gold bullion stolen in the 1983 Brink’s-Mat robbery near Heathrow Airport. Despite always denying he knew it was stolen gold and being found not guilty in a 1987 trial that alleged he was an accomplice to disposing of the gold the evidence was to the contrary. The jury believed his claim he was ignorant of the origins of the precious metal and he walked out of the Old Bailey a free man. This despite the fact he had a shop in Bedminster in Bristol that bought and sold gold jewellery and also laundered stolen valuables including the gold bullion. It was this activity that earned his nickname of John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer.
There have been numerous TV documentaries, books, a movie and articles written about the Brink’s-Mat robbery due to it being the largest theft in British criminal history and the fact it was £23 million pounds of pure gold bullion that was stolen. And that was also the reason the crime unravelled – as converting gold bullion into cash is not easy – especially in such large quantities. Only two of the six robbers were convicted – Micky McAvoy and Kenneth Noye – along with a security guard Tony Black who had let the robbers into the warehouse at Heathrow International Trading Estate.
The thieves used Palmer to melt down much of the gold bullion by mixing it with junk jewellery, copper and other scrap metals to disguise the high gold content and the security codes marked on the gold. The gold could then be resold legitimately with the cash used to fund extravagant lifestyles of the criminal accomplices – especially John Palmer who for a time was one the country’s richest men. After his 1987 trial he moved into another dodgy business using a mixture of violence, intimidation and deception.
Palmer had a home in Tenerife where he concentrated on selling bogus time share apartments to unsuspecting members of the public. Thousands of people fell for his scam – selling holiday homes that didn’t exist, or were sold many times over, or were not his – or hadn’t been built. In 2001 he stood trial charged with fraud and was found guilty and imprisoned in England. Deprived of his ill-gotten gains he was made bankrupt – a come down for a man who had owned a Learjet and a chateau in France. After six years behind bars he was out in Spain again committing fraud for a second time with more property scams – quickly building up a small fortune. The Spanish police closed in on his activities and he fled first to Brazil where he was deported and then to England and instead of moving back to Bath, he bought a detached house in Essex with a large garden.
It was there that a professional hitman tracked his every move, waiting for the moment when Palmer was in the garden out of sight of his CCTV and away from his house. It is thought the gunman climbed the garden fence and shot Palmer six times at point blank range. Palmer turned and staggered towards his house, he collapsed and died. He was 64. The motive must have been the gold. Most of it is still missing and it is possible – indeed likely – that Palmer hid some of the bullion as a nest egg – without telling the gang where it had gone. Either that or as has been rumoured in the media he was about to grass on the remaining members of the gang in exchange for leniency.
The curse of the Brink’s-Mat robbery has continued to excite the media for understandable reasons: the sheer scale of the heist, the gold bullion and the aftermath as the criminals turned in on themselves as they were consumed with greed and rivalry. Gold launderer Charlie Wilson was shot dead in 1990, another launderer Donald Urquhart was murdered three years later, as was Solly Nahome who was also linked to disposing of the gold. Brian Perry who was possibly one of the robbers but didn’t get jailed for the crime but did get jailed for helping to dispose of the gold was shot dead in 2001. Another launderer of the gold was George Francis was shot dead in 2002 and finally Bath’s best-known criminal fraudster met the same fate in 2015.
A new radio documentary series is currently available on BBC Sounds. Gangster: The story of John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer – a criminal who smelted the gold from the Brink’s Mat bullion robbery and went on to mastermind the biggest time share fraud in history is available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/series/p0dwnc59