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Unlocked: Pandora's Box of criminal loot

PUBLISHED: 14:47 26 March 2009 | UPDATED: 16:03 07 September 2010

A gun

A gun

Katie Davies AN investigation into the contents of a safe depository office in Hampstead has revealed an incredible array of evidence related to some of the world s most serious crimes – including terrorism, murder, child pornography, prostitution, multi-

tusk

Katie Davies

AN investigation into the contents of a safe depository office in Hampstead has revealed an incredible array of evidence related to some of the world's most serious crimes - including terrorism, murder, child pornography, prostitution, multi-million pound tax evasion, drug dealing and ivory trading.

On Tuesday the Met Police revealed that 1,000 investigations have been launched as a result of raids on the Hampstead Safe Depository on the Finchley Road and sister offices in Park Lane and Edgware.

The raids took place in June last year, with £35million in cash found in more than half of the 3,554 seized boxes. Innocent box holders have now had their legitimate goods returned.

cash

Detective Chief Inspector Mark Ponting, leading the investigation, said: "This case includes everything from tax evasion to murder - absolutely anything you can think of is being investigated. The enquiries have spread all over the world to South Africa, Canada and most of Europe.

"This operation has simultaneously impacted on a number of criminal networks in London, nationally and globally. It has had a dramatic impact on organised criminal networks, who didn't expect these boxes to be recovered by the police. It has been an incredible success."

Heroin, cocaine, cannabis, forged passports, guns, gold dust and child pornography were among the items recovered.

Some of the Hampstead boxes were stuffed full of cash belonging to jailed criminals who had stashed their ill-gotten gains.

Elephant tusks worth £40,000 were also uncovered alongside forged bank bonds, including one worth $4.95million, believed to be used to dupe investors.

Some 700 people holding boxes at the depositories have been referred to revenue and customs for tax evasion of more than £15million.

Some of the cases are believed to involve 'ghosts' - individuals who have avoided paying tax all their life.

Forty people have been arrested and 11 charged as part of the operation, while yet more have been questioned under caution. Sixty officers are working on the case full-time.

Those already convicted include Leon Gavin, 43, sentenced on Friday to five years in prison for possession and intent to supply drugs and possession of a firearm. His box number 1653 was stored under a false name at Hampstead and contained cannabis, cocaine, other Class A drugs and a 9mm Glock pistol.

Detectives are currently investigating a box held at Hampstead which hasn't been accessed for more than 10 years and hasn't been claimed by anyone since the raids.

It contains seemingly everyday tools such as a hammer, chisel and pipe wrench. DCI Ponting said police are concerned the items have a sinister background.

"There is clearly a story behind these items - to retain it within a secure facility heightens suspicion," he said.

Some innocent box-holders have complained about the length of time it took to get their items back and DCI Ponting admitted it had "taken longer than hoped".

Last year armoured vehicles arrived at the safe depositories in the dramatic raids, codenamed Operation Rize, while officers also swooped on the Hampstead homes of the centres' South African directors, Leslie Sieff and Milton Woolf. So far, no charges have been laid against them but the pair remain on police bail pending money laundering enquiries.

Their company - Safe Deposit Centres - was founded in 1986 with their website stating: "Discretion is always assured and you may rest in the knowledge that your details and those of any joint holders are held in the utmost confidence. You need never disclose the contents of your box to anyone."

The Hampstead centre has recently re-opened for business.


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