What do you keep in a safety deposit box?

Three people have been sentenced following an investigation into three safety deposit box centres in London. Hundreds of innocent people were caught up in a £500m dragnet. But who uses safety deposit boxes and why?

In June 2008 police raided three safety deposit box centres in Hampstead, Edgware and Park Lane.

They seized the contents of 3,497 safety deposit boxes as part of Operation Rize and said they believed "a high percentage of the safety deposit boxes were being used by criminal networks to store the proceeds of crime".

Image copyright Metropolitan Police
Image caption It took 500 officers 12 days to search through all the boxes

In a blaze of publicity, they claimed to have seized more than £50m in cash as well as five handguns, cannabis, crack cocaine and heroin, gold ingots, bars, coins and dust, child abuse images, three paintings by 17th Century Dutch artists, a large amount of jewellery and a number of fake passports.

Assets worth £500m were seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which meant the owners of the boxes had to prove the contents inside belonged to them and, in the case of money, were legitimate income.

Family heirlooms

The box holders included many Indian and Jewish families who were storing heirlooms and wedding jewellery because they feared burglars would steal them if they were kept at home.

For many of them, it took months to persuade the police to release their possessions.

Yitzchak Schochet, a rabbi from Mill Hill, north London, had to wait five months before police agreed to return his wife's jewellery.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Armed police carried out the raid in June 2008 amid a welter of publicity

He told the BBC: "It was a serious intrusion of privacy but we got it back relatively quickly. I have heard of others within the Jewish community who were not so lucky."

Rabbi Schochet said many elderly people, including at least one Holocaust survivor, were among those caught up in the police dragnet.

He said many people kept cash in the boxes because they did not trust the banks or because they wanted to be able to access it in the evenings or weekends, when banks were not open.

Some 80% of box holders have now had their possessions returned.

The owner and director of Safe Deposit Centres Limited (SDC), Milton Woolf, 55, pleaded guilty to 14 charges in January, including possession of a firearm and false identity documents and allowing money laundering.

Woolf, from St John's Wood, north-west London, was jailed for four-and-a-half years at Southwark Crown Court on Monday.

Counterfeit dollars

Two other people, Jackie Swan, 47, and Leslie Sieff, 63, pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Sieff, from Cricklewood, north-west London, received a fine of £1,000 for allowing a customer to hold $60,000 (£36,729) in counterfeit notes in one of the boxes.

Image copyright Metropolitan Police
Image caption Jackie Swann offered criminals advice on evading money laundering regulations

Swan, of Barnet, north London, was sentenced to a 12-month prison term on Monday.

But Woolf's barrister, Andrew Bodmar, told the court: "In court in 2008 the police said 82% of customers were suspicious.

"In fact, only 30 people were convicted out of more than 6,000 boxes."

But Det Supt Mark Ponting, from Scotland Yard, said Operation Rize had been a big success and he denied it had been a "fishing expedition".

He admitted the operation cost £10m but he said £12m had been confiscated, forfeited, and returned to the public purse, and legal action was pending on another £13m.

Image copyright Metropolitan Police
Image caption Milton Woolf, a South African citizen, pleaded guilty to 14 charges on the eve of his trial

Det Supt Ponting claimed 32 organised crime gangs had been disrupted and five handguns belonging to contract killers had been seized, along with a large quantity of child abuse images.

He said Woolf had been offering a "no questions asked" policy and for double the rent he would allow people to take boxes with complete anonymity.

He also pointed to a number of key convictions.

They included:

  • Sex shop owner Michael Geraghty - jailed for 15 months for possession of child abuse images
  • Drug dealer Gavin Leon - jailed for five years for possessing a Glock 9mm gun and possessing drugs with intent to supply
  • Luxury goods thief Yuri Harris - jailed for seven years for conspiracy to steal from wealthy people at airports and jewellery trade fairs
  • Drug user Neil Ayres - jailed for three-and-a-half years for money laundering
  • Horse trader Benjamin Smith - ordered to carry out 200 hours of community service after hiding away £38,000 to keep it from the taxman
  • Fraudsters Andrew Aniakor and his sister Angela Aniakor - jailed for three years and 18 months respectively for possession of false identity documents

But innocent people were no doubt caught up in the raids and Det Supt Ponting said: "I never suggested there would not be an impact on a small number of people.

"But we had a call centre running for a number of months and we prioritised certain people, for example some members of the Indian community who required jewellery to go to weddings.

"There will always be somebody who will say they were not happy," he added.

Image copyright Metropolitan Police
Image caption Police broke into the boxes using an anglegrinder

Russian businessman Alexander Temerko, a former vice-president of the oil company Yukos, was so angry about the seizure of his box - which contained legal documents - he demanded a judicial review.

He was joined by an elderly Jewish couple, John and Estelle Selt, who had kept treasured bracelets in their box for 15 years.

Mr Temerko's case was settled out of court and a confidentiality clause prevents him or his lawyers discussing the case.

Another innocent victim of the operation was a British expat who had £130,000 in cash in a box.

He was living in Thailand and was unable to attend a court hearing at which the money was forfeited.

David Sonn, a solicitor who is representing him and several other box holders, said: "At what point do you interfere with the property and privacy of the many to catch the few?"

Det Supt Ponting said Operation Rize was definitely worthwhile and he pointed out that although £25m in cash had been handed back, HM Revenue and Customs anticipated recovering £20m in unpaid tax.

He said Woolf's criminality dated back to 1993 when he allowed a drug dealer to store a gun and the clothes he wore during a murder in a box under the bogus pseudonym of Mr White.

Image copyright Metropolitan Police
Image caption Neil Ayres tried to explain away £95,000 in cash found in his box

Operation Rize has garnered a lot of bad publicity for the safety deposit box industry.

Christopher Barrow, a director of Metropolitan Safe Deposits Limited, which runs a business in London, said: "Over the years, levels of security have been improved as new technology becomes available.

"This has allowed us to offer our customers complete confidence that their valuables or 'valued' items will be safe with us.

"These items might typically include gold, silver, jewellery, antiquities and documents."

Mr Barrow said: "We believe we have the appropriate guidelines designed to detect, deter and prevent money laundering and other activities intended to facilitate the funding of terrorist or criminal activities."

SDC, a trust based in Switzerland, has since closed the Park Lane depository but is understood to be still operating at Hampstead and Edgware, although there is no suggestion it or any of its employees has engaged in criminal acts since 2008.

Confiscation proceedings are expected against Woolf, a South African citizen with significant assets in Britain and abroad.

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