In what echoes the 24 hour delay it took for News of the World to inform police of their Milly Dowler hacked messages, Rebekah Brooks withheld information from the police in regards to an alleged Victoria Beckham kidnap plot in 2002. She “wanted to keep the matter a secret for as long as possible and thus not spoil the story she was planning to publish” according to Mazher Mahmood‘s evidence in court papers from a libel case against News Group Newspapers in 2005.
In evidence given by Mazher Mahmood for a libel hearing against News Group Newspapers, he admitted hiring criminals as part of his team “since they were less likely to arouse suspicions” under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks. The libel brought by Alin Turcu – real name Bogdan Stefan Maris – who was cleared of a kidnap plot of Victoria Beckham and her children when the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. Though Turcu lost the libel case he won on appeal two years later in 2007.The News of the World apologised and accepted he was not part of the plot. The paper said “Mr Justice Eady ruled that there was indeed a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham, but the newspaper now accepts that Alin Turcu was not part of it.” It was settled with a donation to charity “The newspaper has agreed to make a modest donation to a charity on Mr Turcu’s behalf.”
The News of the World‘s fake sheikh Beckhams kidnap plot was published on 3rd November 2002. Stuart Kuttner, managing editor of the News of the World, boldly told Sky News afterwards: “About six weeks ago we were alerted that a gang of Romanians and Albanian criminals, or people of that persuasion, had a plan to try and kidnap Victoria Beckham and hoped to collect a ransom of £5 million.” He explained “our reporters, led by the man who’s rather well known as the fake sheikh, Mazher Mahmood, infiltrated the gang and in fact found themselves playing a central role with this group of people, most of whom were armed and extremely dangerous and potentially very violent. So much so that one of our people was recruited as the potential getaway driver for the abduction.”
Of the alleged ransom plan, Kuttner said: “There was discussion among members of the gang in the presence of our reporters about this and at one point it was suggested it might be £1 million and another member of the gang said it’s – I’ll paraphrase – hardly worth getting out of bed for that, why don’t we go for £5 million?” As well as Sky, the News of the World alerted BBC and ITN about their scoop – even making available video footage. The paper ran a 7 page “prominent and sensational” story that was followed up by the Sun the next day with another sensational headline ‘Becks calls in an army’. After arrests were made, 5 members of the “gang” spent seven months on remand but the Crown Prosecution Service dropped all charges related to the kidnap plot after learning the News of the World had paid £10,000 to a key witness.
The Set Up
Initially, Florim Gashi had contacted Mazher Mahmood about a story of a jeweled turban stolen from Sotheby’s by someone within his circle of petty criminals friends who wanted to sell it. After a meeting with with Gashi’s friends posing as a buyer, Mahmood turned the story down but offered to assist police after calling Sotheby’s press office to inquire if they’d had a turban stolen. Sometime later Gashi called Mahmood back to tell him the same “gang”, Turcu, Jay Sorin, Luli Krifsha, Joe Rivas and Adrian Pasareanu were now planning to kidnap Victoria Beckham and her children.
This call was to turn into the 7 page story in New of the World – involving the recruitment of Mahmood’s cousin Mahmood Quereshi aka Jaws (because of his gold teeth) as the get-away driver of what the Sunday tabloid would call an “international terror gang”.
According to Gashi, who later gave evidence on behalf Turcu at his appeal against NGN, Mahmood requested a gun as part of the plot – supplied to Gashi by Richard Halsworth who worked for APCOA – “because it would make a dramatic photograph and make the gang look dangerous.” As Mahmood had already been seen by the “gang” posing as a buyer for the turban, he gave recording equipment to Gashi to instigate the “planning” of the kidnap over drinks in bars and restaurants in south London.
At these meetings, Gashi introduced Mahmood’s cousin to the “gang” and began asking hypothetical questions: “If you kidnapped Victoria Beckham, how much ransom would you ask for?”; “Can you transfer that sort of money through a bank?”; “How could you snatch her?”; “When is the best time?”; “Where would she be kept? Unknown to the drinking party who responding to Gashi trying to impress each other and to show off who was more knowledgeable, he was recording the conversations with the equipment supplied to him by Mahmood. Whenever the conversation strayed elsewhere, Gashi would try to steer it back to the topic of a Beckhams kidnap plot.
Media columnist Roy Greenslade, who has written over many years about the methods of the fake sheikh, wrote in the Guardian in 2003; “Of the thousands of words of inconsequential chat recorded by Gashi, very few relate directly to the Beckhams. In a conversation recorded on October 27 – just six days before the men were arrested – one of the supposed “international terror gang” members is recorded saying to another one: “[Gashi] wants us to kidnap Victoria Beckham.” By the time police called round Mahmood’s News of the World office [DI Ian Horrocks of the kidnap and specialists investigations of the Met Police based in New Scotland Yard and two collegues] in regards to the turban, he told them he was also investigating new information of criminal activity by the same “gang.”
Gashi claimed “Maz was continually pushing me to get at least one of the five to go to Beckham’s home”. Once at the home in Sawbridgeworth Herts, Mahmood was there waiting in a surveillance van with a colleague ready to record them walking outside the gated property.
Armed with his “evidence” from Gashi, on October 30th 2002 – 3 days before the arrests – Mahmood along with Qureshi met DI Horrocks and DC Hulme to provide the information he had gathered – including one of the members having a firearm and that they were planning a kidnap. It is at this meeting Mahmood told the police that he did not want to disclose the identity of the target at that stage because “the editor [Brooks] would like to keep that matter a secret for as long as possible and thus not spoil the story she was planning to publish.”
Among the seven pages, on page 6 the News of the World, had an interview with Victoria Beckham under the headline ‘Posh Thanks Us’, as well as a leader headed ‘Maz the amazing’ in tribute to Mahmood. On page 7; ‘Courage Of Our Hero Maz’.
Greenslade called it “one of the great fake stories of our time”. Turcu, a party loving teenager (but a petty criminal) was named as a “surveillance expert” by the paper which resulted in charges of conspiracy to kidnap by the five men. Arrangements were made between News of the World for the arrests to be made on Saturday 2nd November 2002 – so ths the Sunday tabloid could publish their seven page exclusive the next day.
On Saturday morning, Mahmood met with police at 8:15 am to discuss tactics.He was going to lure the “gang” on the basis they would bring the stolen turban still posing as an intermediary for a buyer (as he had done at the earlier meeting on 12th October) to Ibis Docklands Hotel. It was only then Mahmood disclosed to the policethe target was in fact ex Spice Girl Victoria Beckham.
Krifsha, Sorin and Rivas arrived in the hotel car park at just after midday. After an introduction to Rivas, Krifsha took Mahmood to the boot of the car boot to show him three plastics bags with turban and other contents from Sotheby’s – a painting and and antique books.
Armed police arrived at the car park in a white van and leapt out pointing their guns and ordered the suspects to lie on the floor spreadeagled – including Mahmood. As the three alleged gang members were arrested a News of the World photographer took shots from a hotel room overlooking the car park.These would make the front page of the next day’s paper.
The remaining two members of the gang were later arrested.They would all spend seven months on remand before the case being thrown out by the CPS.
Gashi claimed he went along along with the prosecution because Mahmood had offered him a further £5,000 if the men were convicted. Turcu’s solicitor David Price said “This was a stage managed and nauseatingly self-congratulatory article, designed to boost the circulation of the News of the World” at the end of the 2007 libel hearing. Price also managed to track down Richard Halsworth and take a statement under oath that corroborated with Gashi’s claim that he sold the air rifle gun to Gashi. Gashi gave an interview to Roy Greenslade about all his dealings with Mahmood. News of the World found out about the interview . Gashi says he received a phone call from Mahmood’s brother, threatening him for speaking to the Guardian.
All this leaves some fundamental questions:
Firstly, if the plot was genuine, as no doubt News of the World would say it is, why would Rebekah Brooks withhold vital information (Maz’s claims) – and why would the police agree to such a grave risk?
Secondly, with the knowledge of the this, what did CPS do upon learning of this alarming practice? Mazher Mahmood’s evidence at the 2005 libel hearing confidently states the following “much of his investigative work involves infiltrating criminal activity, sometimes doing so personally, sometimes with other plausible characters. Almost inevitably, such persons will themselves have had criminal backgrounds, since they would less likely arouse suspicions among those being investigated or infiltrated.”
The obvious question here for not just the police or CPS but this courts too: how can a conviction be safe if subjects are entrapped for financial gain by criminals?
In other words, not only was Rebekah Brooks happy with criminals on the payroll: Scotland Yard and CPS were quite happy with this set up too. They also seemed happy to bring Fake Sheikh cases to court regardless if previous ones had collapsed.
A year after Mahmood’s evidence to the hearing, when another Fake Sheikh case (“Red Mercury”) which Scotland Yard were collaborating on was thrown out, the Yard was quoted as saying “it would not rule out working with the paper again”. The CPS soon came out in full support of the Mahmood sting despite it being thrown out, and Gashi’s evidence against Mahmood.
The nexus of News UK and Metropolitan Police escaped close scrutiny by Leveson. Whether it ever happens is another question. That’s why in light of recent events, the fate of Mazher Mahmood aka the Fake Sheikh makes compelling viewing.