The Flying Squad
The conviction of five men at the Old Bailey on Monday 18 February 2002 was the culmination of the story of how the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad foiled an attempt to commit what would have been the world's biggest ever robbery.
Armed with smoke bombs, ammonia and a nail gun, the gang crashed into the Dome in a stolen JCB and smashed their way into a high security vault.
Their goal was to steal the De Beers Millennium Diamonds: eleven rare blue stones and the 777 carat flawless Millennium Star. Worth over £200million, the diamonds are second in value only to the Crown Jewels.
Their audacious plot had been months in the planning, but so too had a Flying Squad operation codenamed Magician. It was the biggest undertaken in the Flying Squad’s history and the judge in the case later made a special point of commending the way it was carried out.
Operation Magician begins
In summer 2000 the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad developed intelligence that pointed to a major armed robbery plot. The location of the heist was unclear, but police knew the identities of some of the robbers. They also knew that the gang was highly organised and would probably be armed.
Over a period of months detectives worked tirelessly to develop the intelligence picture. A major surveillance operation was launched, using officers from the Met’s Directorate of Intelligence. Within weeks police were sure they knew the venue of the robbery - The Millennium Dome in Greenwich. The exact target within the Dome was not yet clear.
On 1 September 2000 three of the suspects, William Cockram, Raymond Betson, and Aldo Ciarrocchi were seen at the venue. Cockram was followed by police as he entered the Dome and went straight to the Money Zone. There he entered the De Beers Millenium Diamond Exhibition and spent some time filming the vault with a camcorder.
Cockram then met up with Betson, and the pair videoed the surrounding river and jetty. They were later joined by Ciarrocchi, and police observed them reviewing the earlier recorded footage and studying a plan of the Millennium Dome.
Over the coming weeks the surveillance continued, and further members of the gang were identified. There were more visits to the Dome, and in late September some of the men were spotted testing a speedboat in a harbour in Kent. Detectives thought the gang might use the boat as a getaway. The robbery was getting close.
The yard housed a disused Railtrack engine shed and it was here that detectives first observed gang members with a yellow JCB mechanical digger, registration L245 AJU. The JCB had been reported stolen some months earlier and would clearly have some role to play in the robbery.
Police could not be sure when or indeed exactly how the robbery would take place. On a number of days in October the gang looked as if they were about to commit the offence. On three separate days they towed a speedboat to Greenwich and placed it in the river opposite the Dome. Other activity on those days tended to indicate that the robbery was close - but strangely it didn’t materialise.
Detectives were sure that there was more to this than merely a loss of nerve on the robbers’ part. They analysed the times and days of the aborted attempts and found that they had something in common - the tide.
The tide in the River Thames fluctuates on a fortnightly cycle. On each of the days when the robbery was aborted the tide was at its highest possible level. This was vital to the robbers’ escape, since the boat could only be launched on the north side of the Thames when the water was high.
Through studying the patterns of the tide, police were able to predict the optimum times for the robbery to take place. One of these days was 7 November 2001.
The day of the robbery
At 3am on 7 November 2001 approximately 200 officers involved in Operation Magician gathered at the Dome for a dawn briefing. They were prepared for a tactical operation which had been months in the planning and provided contingencies for many different outcomes.
Public safety was the prime consideration, and officers had plans to ensure that the robbers could be arrested quickly and safely at any given stage during the incident.
Amongst those present were 40 specialist firearms officers. Some of these would be hidden behind a secret wall within the Dome. Others were sent into the Dome in disguise. Dressed as cleaners they concealed their guns in black plastic bags and rubbish bins. Surveillance officers disguised as Dome employees also patrolled the area.
A further 60 armed Flying Squad officers were stationed around the Thames and 20 on the river itself. Officers also moved to a number of observation points between the Old Coal Yard in Plumstead and the Dome.
The Dome’s CCTV room was turned into a police control room. It was from here that Det Supt Jon Shatford ran the whole operation. Det Supt Shatford was later personally commended by the judge in the case.
The arrests and after
With the suspects outside the vault safely detained, armed officers moved towards the vault itself. Distraction devices were thrown inside as officers entered and overpowered the pair. As they handcuffed Adams they noticed a strong smell of ammonia and discovered that both he and Cockram were carrying bottles of the substance.
Betson, who remained inside the JCB was also swiftly arrested and handcuffed.
Armour and ammonia
Meanwhile officers on the river moved in to arrest Meredith. Armed officers deployed on three boats left their hiding places and moved towards Millennium Pier. They quickly cut off his escape route, and arrested him. Meredith was carrying a large quantity of petrol – which police believe would have been used to set fire to the boat after the robbery.
A sixth man was arrested on the north side of the river Thames at the Lower Lea Crossing. He was parked in the White Ford Transit van (N770 AHE) which was seen towing the speedboat earlier that morning.
The robbers were taken to different police stations in South East London for questioning. On 8 November, the following day, they were charged.
Conviction and sentence
On 18 February 2002 at the Old Bailey, Adams, Ciarrocchi, Cockram and Betson were convicted of conspiracy to rob and Meredith was convicted of conspireacy to steal. Betson and Cockram were each jailed for 18 years. Adams and Ciarrocchi were each jailed for 15 years and Meredith was jailed for 5 years.
Judge Michael Coombe told them: "You played for very high stakes and you must have known perfectly well what the penalty would be if your enterprise did not succeed."
A sixth man involved in the robbery plot was jailed at the Old Bailey on Wednesday 20 February. Lee Wenham, aged 33, was sentenced to four years in jail after pleading guilty to conspiracy to steal. At the same time he was sentenced to nine years after pleading guilty to an attempted robbery which took place at Ayelsford, in Kent, in June 2000.
Lee Wenham had been involved in reconnaisance of the Dome before the raid and had stored the speedboat at his farm in Tonbridge, Kent. In September 2000 he was twice seen in Whitstable harbour testing the speedboat with other conspirators.
Proceedings were dropped against another man, 59-year-old James Wenham, who had been charged with conspiracy to rob in relation to the raid on the Dome.