Nigel Lewis confronted by BBC London
The Tale of the 'Olympic Ghost Ships'
Massive cruise ships moored on the River Thames were to house thousands of Olympic construction workers from Slovakia. However, a BBC London investigation has revealed that the ships and the jobs never existed.
By Nigel Morris and Sharif Sakr
The workers say it was all a 'scam' run by convicted fraudster, Nigel Lewis, to cheat them out of £330,000.
Police in Slovakia now want to interview Mr Lewis.
"It was set up with good intentions."
That's what Welsh 'charmer' Nigel Lewis told BBC London when we caught up with him in Devon.
In December 2006, Mr Lewis claimed he had a contract to employ 5,000 builders and catering staff to work on the Olympic Village.
He advertised through European recruitment agencies, offering a complete package of full-time employment plus accommodation on three enormous cruise ships moored near City Airport.
In return, workers would have to pay an upfront fee of £600.
550 workers responded to the advert and paid their fees into the bank account of Mr Lewis' company, UK Cruise Line Ltd.
The promise of work
Many took out loans and some even sold their houses to raise the money, which was equivalent to about half a year's living costs in their own country.
Slovak carpenter Marek Macor said: "It was a very good thing to do, I thought. In 2012 I could have shown it to my kids."
Their applications were organised by Slovak recruitment agent Irena Cepelova, who met Mr Lewis and was won over by his promises:
"He was very enthusiastic about the whole idea of the Olympic Games… He was really a perfectionist and he told me in detail how people will be accommodated on the cruise ships."
Nowhere to be found
But in August 2007, as the date for the workers' travel to London approached, Mr Lewis stopped communicating with them.
Some Slovaks came to London anyway, hoping the promise of work would be kept. But UK Cruise Line's offices were deserted and Mr Lewis had disappeared.
A cruise ship Mr Lewis said he owned
The planned accommodation onboard three cruise liners was also a mystery. Mr Lewis' employment contracts claimed the ships were moored at the King George V dock near Stratford. But according to the dock authorities no cruise ship has been moored there for 26 years.
What the Slovaks did not know was that they had given their money to a convicted fraudster.
In 2003, Nigel Lewis pleaded guilty to another ship scam in which he pledged to create 700 jobs in Weymouth. He stole £16,000 and was fined £875 and given 120 hours of community service.
Three years later he set up UK Cruise Line Ltd. This company went bust in January, leaving the Slovakian workers dreams of working on the Olympic village in tatters.
It was time to confront Mr Lewis about his 2012 'scam.'
We traced him to Dartmouth where he was working in a hotel. He was advertising a boat for sale.
Mr Lewis' tugboat
But it was no ocean going liner – it was a small tug that Mr Lewis had converted into a houseboat.
We confronted Mr Lewis during his cigarette break and he agreed to answer questions.
"It's all gone."
Mr Lewis told BBC London he had made no profit from his UK Cruise Line venture:
"I've worked on this project almost twelve months solid and I've got nothing for it – just heartache."
"I feel sorry for the people but the receiver has everything."
Mr Lewis insisted that he had fully intended to buy three cruise ships and secure jobs on the Olympics, but "it just went out of control."
"It's not a matter of scamming. I worry about these people… I'm not experienced enough with it. That is my biggest problem."
Mr Lewis told us he had a firm agreement to purchase two of the ships from a company in Cyprus and he had even paid for marine experts to survey the planned mooring site.
The Cypriot company told us that Nigel Lewis and called them a couple of times, but had made no effort to buy or even inspect their ships – which were on the market for $9million each.
The marine survey company, which Mr Lewis claimed he had employed, said they had briefly met with Mr Lewis but had never done any work for him.
BBC London has handed over its evidence to police here and in Slovakia.
Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell said:
"I am of course extremely concerned by these reports and thank the BBC for highlighting this case.
"The Government will work closely with the law enforcement agencies in their efforts both to investigate and take action in response to any crime that has occurred."
Reporter: Katharine Carpenter