A $100m oil tanker set on fire ‘by pirates’, a British investigator killed by a car bomb and an explosive court battle for answers: The chilling story of how ex-Met detectives uncovered a multi-million dollar fraud plot is revealed in a compelling new book
When a rusting oil tanker called the Brillante Virtuoso was stormed by armed raiders off the Horn of Africa in July 2011, it caused barely a ripple at the global centre of maritime insurance, Lloyd’s of London.
The region was notorious, after all, with gangs from lawless Somalia attempting to board and hijack ships for ransom every few days.
But the attack on the Brillante was unusual. The attackers had decided to set the vessel ablaze and abandon it, for example. There was no demand for money. Much of the $100 million (£80 million) cargo of oil could be recovered.
The ship was a wreck – a ‘constructive total loss’, in the jargon of the insurance industry – but before settling the vast claim from the owner, the Lloyd’s syndicate underwriting the ship had to go through the necessary formalities.
And there was only one man they could send to inspect the burnt-out hulk in such a volatile part of the world: the British marine surveyor Captain David Mockett, who had lived in Yemen for more than ten years.
A 65-year-old grandfather and former master mariner in the Merchant Navy, he was a colourful figure who seemed to know everyone in Aden on the Yemeni coast. Even with his local connections, though, Mockett found it strangely difficult to find a boat willing to take him out to the oil tanker, now drifting 25 miles south-east of the port and under the control of a Greek-owned local salvage company.
The attack on the Brillante was unusual. The attackers had decided to set the vessel ablaze and abandon it, for example. There was no demand for money. Much of the $100 million (£80 million) cargo of oil could be recovered
When he finally reached the Brillante, it was clear there had indeed been a major blaze. Yet much else made no sense.
It was thought that the fire had been caused by rocket-propelled grenades, but there was no sign they had been used.
Capt Mockett knew that Somali pirates rarely conducted raids after dark, yet these armed men had attacked in the middle of the night.
And then there was the strangest question of all: why would the raiders have abandoned such a valuable prize once they’d gained control?
Though he couldn’t be sure what else was going on, Mockett doubted that pirates were responsible and, making his feelings known, he returned to Aden to write up his findings. But that’s where his investigation stopped. On July 20, 2011, a car bomb exploded beneath Capt Mockett’s Lexus 4×4, killing him. Nobody has ever been charged with his murder.
At first, it seemed likely that the Lloyd’s insurers would pay up for the Brillante, just as insurance syndicates had done with countless other suspicious losses over the years. But the man heading the team for this Lloyd’s syndicate, Paul Cunningham, took a different view.
He refused to ignore the death of David Mockett or the many warning signs. And helping him were two stubborn outsiders, former Scotland Yard detectives named Richard Veale and Michael Conner, known as Metal Mickey for his unyielding nature.
Sometimes mistaken for an accountant, Veale was a specialist in tracing assets through labyrinthine offshore financial structures. His first job was to find out exactly who owned the Brillante, a question which, even by the standards of international shipping, was opaque.
The tanker sailed under the Liberian flag and was registered to a shell company, Suez Fortune, with a postal address in the Marshall Islands.
Capt Mockett knew that Somali pirates rarely conducted raids after dark, yet these armed men had attacked in the middle of the night. And then there was the strangest question of all: why would the raiders have abandoned such a valuable prize once they’d gained control?
Needless to say, the Filipino crew worked for rock-bottom wages.
The insurers had believed it belonged to Top Ships Inc, a Greek company with shares trading on the Nasdaq exchange in New York.
But the actual owner, as Veale then established, was a Greek operator called Marios Iliopoulos – already a well-known figure in certain circles at Lloyd’s.
‘That’s the bloke from the Elli!’ said Cunningham, when he learned the news. The Elli was a tanker that had run aground off the coast of Yemen in 2009 after a fire in its radio room. While being salvaged, it had inexplicably suffered what experts call a ‘catastrophic hogging’, with the two halves of the ship – bow and stern – each collapsing downwards.
Then came two more coincidences. The two ships had employed the same chief engineer on board, and it turned out that the same Greek company, Poseidon Salvage, had attended to both the Elli and the Brillante when they ran into trouble. And now there was a shared owner in Iliopoulos, who had sought insurance payouts on both vessels.
Faced with such troubling evidence, the Lloyd’s insurers decided not to pay, whereupon Iliopoulos, already in apparent financial trouble, sued them in the London courts – the start of a protracted legal battle with millions of pounds at stake.
By 2015, the Lloyd’s underwriters were worried. A court setback had left them liable to pay out as much as $85 million (£70 million) for the wrecked ship. Now they changed tactics, filing High Court documents which directly accused Iliopoulos of fraud.
‘There was no attack by Somali pirates,’ said the papers. ‘Any such attack on the vessel was staged with the involvement and connivance of the owner.’
According to the underwriters, the captain of the Brillante had ordered the ship to drift and had given permission for the supposed pirates to come aboard. Then the chief engineer had been alone with the intruders in the engine room. Iliopoulos, the owner, had been deeply in debt, they argued, giving him a strong incentive to destroy the vessel, the more so as it had been insured at far in excess of its real economic value.
In early 2016, Iliopoulos was ordered to testify in person at the High Court, a chance for investigators to come face-to-face with a man who styled himself Super Mario. He bore no resemblance to the polished operators who generally dominate the top ranks of shipping. Overweight, with long, stringy hair and an unruly beard, Iliopoulos was known, instead, for his crude manners and his love of racing cars.
On July 20, 2011, a car bomb exploded beneath Capt Mockett’s Lexus 4×4, killing him. Nobody has ever been charged with his murder
Few in the rarefied world of Greek shipping have ever been ordered to appear in a foreign court. Perhaps that’s why Iliopoulos marched up to the witness box with the swagger of a professional wrestler, his unshaven features twisted into a scowl, untucked shirt stretched over an ample stomach.
In the box, he grew steadily more animated, thumping the desk in a display of open hostility rarely seen in London’s courtrooms.
It did him no good. In a written judgment several weeks later, Mr Justice Flaux delivered a scathing assessment of Iliopoulos’s testimony, describing him as ‘evasive and non-responsive and, on occasions, aggressive and threatening’.
The judge struck out his demands for the insurance money – and the City of London Police arrested Iliopoulos on suspicion of fraud. (He was released without charge the same day.) With such vast sums at stake, however, the fight continued. Now Piraeus Bank, which had been forced to write off a multi-million-pound loan to Iliopoulos, took over the claim against the insurers in the hope of getting its money back.
The investigators still had work to do. For the policy to be declared void, the Lloyd’s syndicate needed to prove that the ship had been destroyed through the ‘wilful misconduct’ of its owner. And this was far from easy.
The following days brought another breakthrough. Iliopoulos’s arrest was big news in Greece and a witness came forward claiming to have vital information – but wanted up to $10 million (£8 million) to talk. Nevertheless, Veale and Conner travelled to Athens to meet him at the Hotel Grande Bretagne on Syntagma Square, the city’s central plaza. There, in a small conference suite, they were introduced to a Greek marine engineer.
More than 6ft tall, with huge arms, long hair and a rough beard, the man looked like a real-life version of Bluto from the Popeye cartoons, but the story he told was all too plausible. The engineer explained that not only had he worked with the owner of Poseidon Salvage, the Greek-owned firm sent to aid the burning tanker, he had also been sent to buy Kalashnikovs for the attackers to use.
He claimed that Poseidon’s owner, a man called Vassilios Vergos, had planned the attack in advance with the Brillante’s owner and that, instead of saving the ship, the salvage crew had helped stoke the fire on board to ensure the Brillante’s total destruction.
In early 2016, Iliopoulos was ordered to testify in person at the High Court, a chance for investigators to come face-to-face with a man who styled himself Super Mario. He bore no resemblance to the polished operators who generally dominate the top ranks of shipping. Overweight, with long, stringy hair and an unruly beard, Iliopoulos was known, instead, for his crude manners and his love of racing cars
These were devastating claims.
Veale and Conner then found another man who had boarded the Brillante in the aftermath of the hijacking. Like the bearded sailor they met in Athens, this source had worked closely with the salvage master, Vassilios Vergos.
This new witness, Dimitrios Plakakis, was now in London – and the story he told was perhaps the most chilling of all.
Clearly terrified when the two detectives turned up on his doorstep, Plakakis said he couldn’t help them. But Veale and Conner managed to get a court order to obtain a statement he had already given to British police. It was dynamite.
Not only did it provide minute detail about the fraud, it contained new information about the death of David Mockett. Plakakis told police he had been present when Mockett arrived at the Brillante to survey the damage for its insurers and had been with the men when Vergos had hosted the surveyor on his salvage barge.
Over dinner that evening, Capt Mockett had mentioned his crop of grandchildren, who delighted him.
In response, reported Plakakis, Vergos turned to Mockett and asked what he was doing in a dangerous place like Yemen. ‘For a man your age, it’s better to stay with your grandchildren,’ Vergos said.
Mockett was clearly perplexed by the case and, within earshot of many on board, the Briton remarked he had seen no evidence of a strike by a rocket-propelled grenade and no sign of the supposed pirates firing their weapons on the tanker.
‘Everyone could see on his face that he was not happy about what he had seen or what he had been told,’ Plakakis recalled.
He was shocked, days afterwards, to discover that Capt Mockett had been killed and called Vergos to tell him about the bombing.
Yet it seemed the Greek salvage expert already knew, saying: ‘I told him to stay with his grandchildren.’
Vergos has denied having advance knowledge of Mockett’s death and has accused Plakakis and other witnesses of fabricating allegations against him. Iliopoulos has also denied wrongdoing. Neither has been charged in connection with the killing.
The Brillante case finally came to court in February 2019 and continued for 52 days, many of them taken up with cross-examination of technical specialists. Eight months later, the legal teams returned to hear the judge, Mr Justice Teare, hand down his damning verdict. In 130 pages, he concluded the ship was indeed wrecked as the result of fraud.
‘The orchestrator of these events was the owner of Brillante Virtuoso, Mr Iliopoulos,’ Teare wrote.
The captain and engineer ‘assisted the armed men in their task’ and were key players in a conspiracy to which Vergos was party.
After he had read the judgment, Conner called David Mockett’s widow Cynthia to break the news.
It was the closest Cynthia had come to a validation of her husband’s life and death – maybe the closest she would ever come.
‘David was right,’ she said through tears. ‘I knew he was right.’
© Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel, 2022
Dead In The Water, by Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel, is published by Atlantic Books at £18.99. To order a copy for £17.09, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before June 19. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.