The Millennium Dome Diamond Heist
The Flying Squad took on some of the worst criminals in British history, but their most notable conquest was an infamous diamond heist.
In October 1919, Detective Chief Inspector Frederick Wensley called 12 detectives to his office in Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London. He told them that their task was to combat violent criminals currently occupying the London boroughs through surveillance and capture. They would be known as the Flying Squad.
The flying squad via eadt.co.uk
This team was temporarily known as the Central Robbery Squad for three years in the late 70s and early 80s, but ultimately the Flying Squad got its name from carrying out their duties without needing to observe borough jurisdictions. As a result, it was nicknamed the Sweeney, its abbreviation in Cockney rhyming slang for Sweeney Todd.
Initially, their vehicles were covered horse-drawn carriages, with holes cut in the fabric to spy through. They would hide in the carriages until they were ready to strike, then they would ambush their suspects.
The flying squad via eadt.co.uk
The 12 officers included Jeremiah Lynch, an Irish detective who spent most of his career trapping German spies during World War I. He also built the case against Horatio Bottomley, a journalist and confidence trickster in the early 1920s. The Squad was made up of the best officers the Met had to offer.
The Squad investigated such cases as The Great Train Robbery, where Ronnie Biggs and his accomplices stole £54million. However, another investigation would see the Flying Squad pushed to its limit; the Millennium Dome raid.
In August 2000, the Flying Squad was tipped off by a source that a major armed robbery heist planned. The target was still unknown, but they knew who some of the thieves were, and they began their surveillance. The undercover operation was known as Operation Magician.
The Squad knew of three robbers; Lee Wenham, Raymond Betson and William Cockram, and they were carefully followed by the Squad, waiting for the thieves to lead them to their target.
The Millennium Dome was an architectural project designed by Richard Rogers to celebrate the turn of the Millennium in Greenwich, London. At the time, the Dome was showing the original exhibition and boasted visitors upwards of six million that year.
The Millennium Dome via Wikimedia Commons
For several months, the robbers were all spotted at the Dome multiple times. The building was packed, but the Squad managed to keep a close eye on the suspects, and they noticed that they were recording video footage of their visits to the attraction. Because of the constant surveillance, the Squad could soon identify other associates involved in the future heist.
Terry Millman, Aldo Ciarrocchi, Robert Adams and Kevin Meredith were also part of the plan to steal pieces of the current exhibition on show. Unfortunately, they had chosen a very expensive target; the Millennium Star.
The Millennium Star is a diamond owned by De Beers, an international diamond mining corporation. De Beers had loaned the Dome the flawless diamond worth around £200million. Alongside the 203-carat jewel were priceless blue diamonds, making up a large part of the exhibition, Money Zone.
Because of early intelligence the Squad had received, they could swap the jewels with forgeries, as they didn’t yet know when the robbers would strike. They also installed a fake wall inside the exhibition space that could hold dozens of police officers in full riot gear.
The Squad found out that Terry Millman’s role in the heist was to obtain a getaway vehicle for the robbers. Then, in September, they observed some of the gang testing a speedboat in a harbour in Kent, a county southeast of London.
The Squad realised that this surveillance and the specific times of day the thieves had visited the exhibition were not random. They were charting the waters at the Dome; they were going to escape using the River Thames.
The gang attempted the robbery twice before they finally went ahead with the heist. The first attempt failed because of an issue with the speedboat. The second was just the day before the actual robbery and was unsuccessful due to the tide being too low for a safe escape.
After the second attempt, the Squad knew that the heist would take place the next day and replaced all of the Dome’s employees with undercover police officers.
On Tuesday the 7th of November, Operation Magician began, and Detective Superintendent Jon Shatford was in command.
The Squad’s day began with a police briefing at 3 am, to discuss the plan and additional counter-plans if the thieves escaped.
Sixty members of the Flying Squad were stationed around the area, with another twenty in boats on the river. There were 200 police officers in position around the Dome, disguised as staff and tourists, including 40 firearms officers. The Millennium Dome surveillance office became the temporary police control room, and the false wall in the exhibition area was filled with the firearm squad, where they waited quietly.
Four of the robbers had already been sighted, hiding out in a digger near the Dome, kitted out in gas masks and concealing guns. They were also carrying smoke bombs and sledgehammers; they were ready to go.
They used the digger to drive through the wall of the Dome and into the exhibition space. They then used the smoke bombs to distract any staff members and began to shoot the bomb-proof glass with the nail gun in order to weaken it.
As they were about to start smashing the cabinets with the sledgehammer, the police ambushed the men, and they were swiftly arrested and taken to police stations in South London.
The Dome was reopened at midday, and the only closed exhibition was the De Beers’ Money Zone exhibit.
The raid in detail via Alchetron
A year later, the trial began. By this point, Terry Millman had died from cancer, so only six members of the gang would stand trial for the attempted robbery.
Aldo Ciarrocchi’s statement began with how negligent security was at the Dome.
“I couldn’t believe how simple it was…. I was thinking, this cannot be true, it was a gift. At first I had thought it was pie in the sky, but after going down there I couldn’t believe security was so bad…. There was nobody in the vault, no security workers walking around.”
Throughout the trial, all of the remaining gang members stated that there was never a plan to hurt anyone and that the weapons they had were only to help steal the diamonds.
Crown Prosecutor Martin Heslop said at the trial;
“The raid was planned professionally, carefully and down to the last detail…. So well organised was it that it would probably have succeeded, had it not been for an equally professional, careful and detailed police operation.”
After seven days, the jury found the men guilty by a majority vote. Betson and Cockram were given 18-year sentences. Aldo Ciarrocchi and Robert Adams were given 15 years, and Kevin Meredith was sentenced to five years, as he was only found guilty of conspiracy to steal.
The Flying Squad also had another man under surveillance during the time of the robbery. 46-year-old James Hurley was believed to be the brain of the heist, and he was tracked to Costa Del Sol by Operation Magician’s commander DCS John Stratford and his team, who arrested him after a car chase through Puerto Banus.
The Squad had seen Hurley taking photographs of the Dome and its surrounding area and is believed to have helped obtain the speedboat with Terry Millman. The codename given to him by the Squad was “The Boatman”.
Scotland Yard believed that the gang had a wealthy Middle-Eastern client lined up to receive the stolen goods, which would have amounted to over £350 million in diamonds if the heist had been successful.
The expanded Flying Squad is still in operation today and has been dramatized on TV in The Sweeney and its spin-offs throughout the years. There have also been multiple books written about the Flying Squad, told by retired officers, like Dick Kirby in The Sweeney: The First Sixty Years of Scotland Yard’s Crimebusting Flying Squad.