The thriller of the mogul, the on line casino and the heist that rocked Mayfair

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Simply earlier than 10am on a wet June morning, a lone man carrying a black balaclava and a blue boiler go well with approached the brass-plated entrance of the Park Lane Membership in London. The person carried a darkish bag up the marble and gold-fronted staircase inside and barged into the on line casino’s reception space. When a chauffeur who was ready on the entrance desk started to shout at him, the intruder paused, making a silent however unmistakable gesture together with his hand: he was armed, and this was a theft.Moments later, the gunman burst into the blinking lights of the gaming flooring. Croupiers and waiters panicked and commenced to flee, operating throughout the on line casino’s swirling inexperienced and purple floral carpets. An worker sitting behind the money desk glanced up from his pc at what he thought was a buyer and noticed the balaclava. The masked man appeared the cashier within the eyes and leapt over the desk, sending the terrified employee crashing backwards right into a heap on the ground. The robber then started to stuff his bag with payments from the money drawer, rigorously leaving the £5 notes apart. After taking the cash, the thief exited the on line casino via a service door connecting to a resort in the identical constructing. A safety guard adopted as the person made his approach in the direction of a close-by Tube ­station and watched as he unzipped the boiler go well with, eliminated the balaclava and placed on a baseball cap. He tossed his disguise in a bin and disappeared underground.Even earlier than the theft, the on line casino’s proprietor Vasilijs Melniks had appeared more and more paranoid to workers. The Latvian businessman had employed two mountainous British bodyguards wearing black fits to shadow him and commenced to maintain his appearances on the on line casino temporary. He had turn into increasingly short-tempered with workers. Safety had been instructed to submit clients from sure jap European nations to stringent background checks. And Melniks had organized to have the ability to monitor the on line casino’s CCTV cameras remotely on his iPad from anyplace on the planet. It was the summer season of 2017, and the person who robbed Melniks had pulled off the primary central London on line casino heist in many years. It was instantly clear to startled workers that this was no random ­housebreaking. The person within the masks had been ready. He had recognized small notes are normally marked. And he had used a secret exit. They puzzled if the Park Lane Membership had been underneath surveillance and, in that case, for a way lengthy. Maybe the crime had one thing to do with the collection of unusual occurrences that appeared to torment their boss previous the break-in. Or, perhaps, it had been an inside job.Few within the discreet world of high-stakes playing knew a lot about Melniks when he first arrived in London in 2013. Thickset, standing at over six ft tall and keen on loud Brioni sports activities jackets and crocodile-skin sneakers, Melniks was an imposing determine with an unusually spherical, nearly child-like face. He launched himself as an entrepreneur who had made his fortune in shipbuilding, and the 46-year-old boasted of getting as soon as served as Latvia’s youngest-ever finance minister for just a few days again within the Nineties.

Pictures accompanying this text are merely illustrative and don’t present any precise places, people or objects on this story © Salvatore Vitale

The Latvian businessman Vasilijs Melniks, who opened the Park Lane Membership in autumn 2014, advised associates that proudly owning a Mayfair on line casino could be the right approach to set up himself in London © Salvatore Vitale

Even so, Melniks wouldn’t have significantly stood out among the many worldwide assortment of super-wealthy who frequent Mayfair, the neighbourhood that lends its identify to the most costly property on the London Monopoly board. As new waves of overseas cash rushed into the British capital within the 2010s, Mayfair’s luxurious inns, non-public golf equipment and extra garish eating places started to resemble one thing just like the Star Wars cantina for jet-setters, Center Japanese sheikhs and Chinese language property magnates rubbing shoulders with minor European royalty and smooth-talking con artists. London was in full swing as a globalised entrepôt. Within the champagne pyramid of the pre-Brexit, pre-pandemic British capital — and earlier than China’s anti-corruption purges and Russian sanctions — among the highest glasses, the highest of the fountain from which money flowed into the town, have been the non-public gaming rooms of Mayfair. Melniks hadn’t come to play; he’d include a dream. Not like overseas tycoons shopping for up soccer groups, luxurious inns or huge mansions, Melniks had his eye on a special kind of trophy asset: a on line casino of his personal, one to rival London’s ­storied playing dens. Mayfair’s casinos have a protracted historical past as playgrounds for the wealthy, louche and sometimes damned. Gaming rooms cropped up within the gents’s golf equipment of St James’s within the early 1800s. Following the legalisation of casinos in 1960, a brand new era opened playing institutions such because the now-defunct Clermont Membership, which attracted a clientele that included the aristocrat Lord Lucan, artist Lucian Freud, Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli and an assortment of cupboard ministers, earls, dukes and­ different luminaries of British excessive society. There was additionally Crockfords and Les Ambassadeurs, the on line casino by which Sean ­Connery first delivered the road “Bond, James Bond” whereas enjoying chemin de fer in Dr No. Melniks, a number of former enterprise associates say, had turn into passionate about a fantasy model of this world. He advised associates that proudly owning a Mayfair on line casino could be the right approach to set up himself in London. “It was the dream of getting his identify up in vivid lights,” says a former on line casino government who knew Melniks. “Think about the networking alternatives . . . He was considering, I’ll meet this sheikh, this king, this queen.” Melniks didn’t reply to repeated requests for remark. Veterans of the on line casino neighborhood didn’t know what to make of the newly arrived Latvian. Dave Allen, a frankly spoken Yorkshireman who constructed a playing and nightclub empire within the north of England that later expanded to central London, remembers assembly Melniks for the primary time when the Latvian enquired about presumably shopping for one among his casinos. “I’ve been on this enterprise for 50 years. I used to be introduced up in it. I’m steeped in it,” he says. “I might instantly inform he wasn’t.”It was additionally clear Melniks had cash. With no everlasting residence in London, he primarily based himself in numerous high-end inns, often staying in a set at The Dorchester and being shuttled round Mayfair by chauffeur. {A magazine} article revealed in his native nation famous he arrived at a prestigious occasion in Riga in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, carrying a darkish pin-striped go well with, his spouse holding a purple Hermès Birkin bag price greater than €50,000.Melniks’ English was closely accented and, in conferences, he would make the type of authoritative gestures together with his massive, ham-like palms pure to males accustomed to being in management. He had purpose to be self-confident. As head of the ­Latvia-Russia Co-operation Council, he had constructed connections with highly effective Russian oligarchs. Melniks had no expertise operating a on line casino, so he enlisted the assistance of Robert Walker, a smooth-talking veteran who had began within the business within the Nineteen Eighties. Walker was old-school in his manner, and charming. “Bob at all times appeared nice in a go well with,” says the previous on line casino government. “Just like the type of man you’ll see in a film a couple of on line casino.” Walker had beforehand been employed by Aspinall’s, the on line casino based by John Aspinall, a Sixties playing impresario who made a fortune separating feckless British aristocrats from their inheritances. Mayfair’s elite establishments — centred across the holy trinity of Crockfords, Les Ambassadeurs and Aspinall’s — nonetheless function on the identical enterprise mannequin. Not like mass-market casinos that run on enormous portions of small bets, high playing institutions generate as much as 95 per cent of their income from a tiny pool of “whales”, or ultra-high internet price gamblers. It’s a unstable enterprise mannequin, by which a whole 12 months’s income could be destroyed if one millionaire or billionaire has a fortunate night time. Every whale needs to be handled like royalty, each whim catered to. One infamous excessive curler, the Syrian-born Fouad al-Zayat — recognized to workers in Mayfair’s casinos as “the Fats Man” — gambled £91.5mn in Aspinall’s alone over a span of 12 years. Whales like al-Zayat have been extremely wanted and extremely demanding. Some might even refuse to pay their payments. “In case you go to a restaurant and you don’t just like the meals, you don’t pay,” al-Zayat as soon as remarked of his strategy to settling playing money owed. “In case you go to the whorehouse and don’t get the pleasure you have been looking for, you don’t pay.” (Al-Zayat by no means gambled on the Park Lane Membership.)

Even earlier than the theft, Melniks was more and more preoccupied by safety at his on line casino. He made positive he might monitor the its CCTV cameras remotely on his iPad from anyplace on the planet © Salvatore Vitale

Mayfair’s high playing institutions generate as much as 95 per cent of their income from a tiny pool of ultra-high internet price gamblers. A 12 months’s income could be worn out if one consumer has a fortunate night time © Salvatore Vitale

The enterprise mannequin at Melniks’ potential on line casino was going to be comparable, with a deal with emerging-market tycoons at play in London. However first, Melniks needed to pay money for a playing licence. On line casino licences within the UK are strictly managed by the nation’s gaming regulator, the Playing Fee, and solely a set quantity can be found in every space. Melniks had learnt via Walker of the prospect to put money into an organization that owned a ­dormant licence in Mayfair, and he pounced, shopping for it for £8.4mn. Subsequent he wanted a venue, and Walker advised ­Melniks he knew the right location. The Park Lane Hilton, overlooking Hyde Park and moments away from the embassies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was keen to lease some house on the primary flooring of the resort. It was near the guts of ­Mayfair, with a second-floor terrace overlooking Les Ambassadeurs, and situated solely a brief stroll from the 4 Seasons, a resort favoured by Center Japanese royalty.By the summer season of 2014, Melniks’ dream started to appear like actuality. With the venue secured, his firm utilized to the Playing Fee for approval. Sixteen weeks later, Melniks had turn into the primary jap European businessman to personal a on line casino in London. Walker scrambled to assemble a crew. He started to headhunt flooring managers, croupiers and waiters from different casinos, pitching them the potential of what was going to be the most recent, most enjoyable playing membership in Mayfair. Some gave up jobs at established outfits for the prospect of a promotion. Others needed to be educated from scratch. He employed Craig Murray, an skilled surveillance officer initially from Essex, as his head of safety. General, the workers would develop to a complete of 164 individuals. To brighten the premises, black marble and purple velvet screens have been put in all through, and the loos’ bogs have been fitted out in faux gold. Melniks spent lavishly on his new enterprise, importing fittings and supplies from world wide. He was particularly happy with his pièce de résistance, a glass crystal ceiling made up of multicoloured shapes designed to appear like large valuable stones. The previous on line casino government described the top end result as not wanting very similar to “conventional Mayfair. The carpets have been particularly wacky.” By the autumn of 2014, the Park Lane Membership was prepared for opening night time. It was a low-key affair; Walker stated just a few phrases to a small group of Melniks’ associates and purchasers, and the tables opened for play. One businessman from Kazakhstan introduced the Latvian a holographic decorative pistol in a field as a present to mark the event. Melniks spent the night ingesting on the centre of the bar, quietly surveying his new empire. “He was sitting there,” one junior member of workers remembers, “ensuring everybody knew who he was and precisely who was in cost.” The difficulty began nearly instantly. In October 2014, a bunch of Israeli businessmen claimed they have been owed a stake within the on line casino on account of funds they made to the earlier proprietor of the licence. Melniks’ firm later alleged in courtroom filings that one among these males threatened him by exhibiting him pictures of “outstanding Chechen nationals”.

This text is the duvet story of the FT Weekend Journal, Might 14/15 © Salvatore Vitale

One of many males within the footage was Ramzan Kadyrov, the infamous Prada-wearing warlord who was later sanctioned by the US. Melniks would have recognized precisely what was being implied, as Chechen gangsters underneath the management of Kadyrov had constructed a status as ruthless enforcers for Russian organised crime and have been linked to a string of contract killings throughout Europe. The person, Melniks claimed, advised him that these Chechens needed to put money into the membership and needed entry to on line casino credit score strains. He refused. Two months later, Melniks was strolling out of the Mandarin Oriental in central London when two males he had by no means seen earlier than tried to bundle him right into a automobile. One among them issued a warning in regards to the on line casino in Russian: “You might be conserving what will not be yours.” Melniks managed to flee, however he was shaken. It was clear that somebody needed to take his on line casino, and so they have been keen to make use of violence.5 days after the tried kidnapping, Walker was working within the Park Lane Membership’s again workplace, the hidden nerve centre of the operation filled with video surveillance tools. All of the sudden, one of many Israelis got here in accompanied by a person Walker didn’t know. They demanded to see Melniks, who wasn’t there, and proceeded to put out a proposal to relay to the boss: if Melniks agreed handy over a stake within the on line casino that day, they “would solely take 50 per cent”. If he waited till the next day, they might pressure him to switch 70 per cent. Melniks’ spouse and kids, they advised Walker, have been at risk too. And if he didn’t comply by the top of the week, “there could be no on line casino”. Walker requested the boys to go away, which they did, and he referred to as the police. Melniks later claimed in an English courtroom that the Russian-speakers who tried to kidnap him have been engaged on behalf of the Israelis who’d barged in on Walker. He reported the extortion try and the Metropolitan Police however, in line with info Melniks’ legal professionals submitted in courtroom, the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service didn’t pursue the case due to an absence of proof. It should not have felt that approach to the Latvian who, although the Park Lane Membership was barely up and operating, had already reported a disorienting barrage of occasions.Botched kidnapping and threats however, 2014 was a great time to be within the Mayfair on line casino enterprise. It was the primary 12 months, for instance, that elite croupiers reported seeing clients betting £1mn per hand in baccarat, in line with the previous on line casino government. “Perhaps it had occurred on a superyacht within the ocean someplace in a ­non-public recreation of billionaires. However in a licensed ­operator, no person had ever wager these stakes.” Annual revenues for desk video games at Mayfair’s six high-end casinos rose 85 per cent from 2011 to 2014, hitting £297mn, in line with Dan Waugh, a gaming guide. If the Park Lane Membership was going to do greater than mop up its well-known neighbours’ leftovers, it was going to should tempt excessive rollers. Melniks instructed Walker and his workers to work all of their contacts to draw VIP purchasers. And, at first, it appeared to work. Premier League footballers made appearances across the membership’s roulette tables. Different guests have been businessmen from the previous Soviet Union, together with the Azeri-born tycoon Telman Ismailov, who threw himself a lavish fiftieth birthday celebration at which he was serenaded by ­Jennifer Lopez.Luring whales into the on line casino was one factor, convincing them to play one other. In Might 2015, a Croatian businessman named Juste Puharic lastly accepted an invite to gamble at Melniks’ membership. Walker had been courting him for greater than a 12 months, even exhibiting him across the on line casino earlier than it opened to the general public. Puharic, who had a keenness for high-stakes roulette and generally walked into Mayfair casinos with as a lot as £20mn readily available, was precisely the type of buyer they wanted.On his first night time on the Park Lane Membership, Puharic purchased £450,000-worth of chips and misplaced £200,000. The percentages have been working, as they need to, in Melniks’ favour. However the next night Puharic returned to the on line casino and doubled down. He launched into a marathon five-day playing session, betting greater than £27mn on roulette. Ultimately, the Croatian gained £1.4mn, in line with proof given to the English Excessive Court docket. That 12 months, its first full 12 months of operations, the Park Lane Membership made a lack of £1.8mn. Violent swings in fortune are a part of the high-end on line casino enterprise, however Melniks had a behavior of turning into infuriated when gamblers gained. After one other buyer managed to spin £10,000 into greater than £150,000 on roulette — a statistically inconceivable feat given the stakes he was enjoying for — Melniks decreed he’d by no means gamble within the Park Lane Membership once more. To the veterans working for him, this broke the golden rule of on line casino administration: when a buyer will get fortunate, they need to be showered with consideration and each effort made to get them to gamble their winnings. Over a protracted sufficient ­horizon, the home at all times wins. Melniks normally flew into London from Latvia as soon as a month, staying for just a few days at a time. However as losses mounted, he started conserving a more in-depth watch. He steamed into the on line casino together with his ­bodyguards at a second’s discover, sending workers right into a panic. Inspecting the gaming flooring, his anxious managers trailing behind, the Latvian often noticed one thing to his displeasure.Generally, he chastised his workers in barely garbled English they believed to be Russian proverbs. If Melniks stated, for instance, “Don’t look in my pocket, look in your personal,” that meant “don’t query my selections, and thoughts your personal enterprise”. Different occasions, he merely misplaced his mood. “You might be fucking me with my very own cash!” one ex-employee remembers Melniks shouting after studying {that a} supervisor had supplied a profitable buyer an incentive bonus to play on the on line casino. On one other event, Melniks turned irate after studying that further slot machines had been put in with out his information, accusing the workers of turning his “stunning on line casino right into a Turkish bazaar”.Even when he wasn’t in London, Melniks loomed. He as soon as referred to as from overseas to demand a croupier be rotated out of her place on the playing flooring. Melniks was watching the on line casino’s CCTV from his iPad and seen {that a} buyer on her desk was having a scorching streak enjoying blackjack. “He was extraordinarily paranoid,” says the previous junior workers member. “He thought that folks have been stealing from him.” Because the membership struggled, it turned clear to some workers that Melniks had considerably underestimated how onerous operating a Mayfair on line casino could be. “The entire approach the on line casino was being run, it was a recipe for catastrophe,” the junior workers member says. One ex-employee says that some managers berated workers in entrance of shoppers. Morale among the many Park Lane Membership’s staff plummeted.

The robber had been closely disguised and had acted shortly, making it not possible to establish him. However the on line casino’s head of safety knew the offender needed to be knowledgeable or ‘an inside agent’ © Salvatore Vitale

A silver-coloured plastic gun, with masking tape across the deal with, was among the many proof uncovered by police in Hyde Park. They discovered it inside a plastic bag that the thief had tossed in a bin © Salvatore Vitale

In Melniks’ drive to win over whales there have been indicators that the Park Lane Membership was reducing corners. So-called politically uncovered individuals, or clients seen as dangers for bribery and different types of corruption, weren’t being correctly vetted. The UK’s playing regulator later discovered that one man with a “status as a big participant” had been given a £2mn cheque cashing facility by the membership primarily based on a single assembly in a resort with a Park Lane Membership supervisor. The consumer had offered a letter from their financial institution to show their wealth however, later, the on line casino was unable to offer related documentation to regulators. One other buyer was allowed to take away £800,000 in money from the on line casino in phases with out being adequately vetted.Even after a warning from regulators, the on line casino allowed such lapses to proceed and was ultimately discovered to have didn’t carry out adequate due diligence on 61 of its clients and two politically uncovered individuals. By then it was clear British authorities weren’t the one ones watching.One Thursday morning in June 2017 at round 11am, a feminine croupier was strolling via Mayfair on her approach to work. Like most workers, she arrived every day by way of an underground automobile park situated behind the Hilton. She approached a door to the on line casino, which was inaccessible to resort visitors. Standing just a few ft away from her was a lone man, lurking inside an adjoining staircase. He was wearing a blue boiler go well with and was carrying a white onerous hat. The lady unlocked the door and, sensing his likelihood, the person raced down the steps in the direction of the doorway. However he was too gradual, and the door slammed shut. Nobody else had seen the person skulking across the on line casino that morning. 5 days later, at 10am, the gaming flooring of the Park Lane Membership was quiet. The final buyer from the earlier night had cashed of their chips within the early hours, and the workers on obligation have been ready at empty roulette and blackjack tables. Then the doorways swung open. A feminine croupier appeared as much as see a person in a blue boiler go well with, a balaclava masking his face. Her first response was to drop to the ground. As she hid underneath the roulette desk, she heard one among her colleagues “kiss up” — the kissing sound sellers use once they need to get colleagues’ consideration. The ground supervisor started to shout, telling workers to run. Employees fled to the again of the on line casino, scrambling to discover a place to cover. Frantic, they bundled into the restroom and crouched down contained in the locked rest room. The ladies hugged one another because the emergency lights started to flash. One took out her telephone and dialled 999. There was one thing ­horrible taking place contained in the on line casino, she advised police. The workers have been at risk, particularly the cashier who was caught behind his desk. He had been left on the now-deserted gaming flooring, alone with the person within the masks.On the opposite aspect of the on line casino, the cashier was trembling on the ground, his head slumped, palms shielding his face. Between the cracks of his fingers he might make out the silhouette of the person within the boiler go well with stuffing financial institution notes into his bag. He might additionally see the person was not fumbling round. He didn’t look like looking. He had gone straight for the one drawer by which money was usually stored. And he’d left behind the “bait cash,” small notes marked particularly within the occasion of theft. When he completed, the robber vaulted again over the money counter and was gone.Although a comparatively small quantity was taken, simply £36,000, the heist gave the impression to be the ultimate straw for Melniks. He had already endured dismal monetary outcomes, tried extortion and kidnapping and threats to his and his household’s private security. Two months after the theft, the non-public UK firm via which Melniks’ owned the Park Lane Membership filed paperwork requesting safety underneath an obscure British regulation that permits a shareholder to turn into nameless if they’re “at severe threat of violence or intimidation”. It was an admission that, in impact, the Park Lane Membership had turn into too harmful for him to personal. Melniks had come of age in a Latvia that was transitioning from former Soviet satellite tv for pc to EU member. However the nation was nonetheless dominated by Russia and its safety providers. Latvia within the early Nineties, in line with Yuri Shvets, a former senior KGB officer who supervised the Soviet spy company’s actions within the Baltics, was “actually run by KGB brokers”. In English courtroom testimony given final 12 months, Shvets described how Russian intelligence went about deploying a community of deep-cover brokers within the newly impartial Latvia, establishing management of banks and companies. In 1994, when Melniks was simply 27, he was elected to Riga’s metropolis parliament. He additionally joined the Riga privatisation board as Latvia started to unload state-controlled belongings. The next 12 months, when the Riga Shipyard was privatised, Melniks acquired a big stake. He additionally made positive to maintain males from the KGB shut, hiring as his head of safety Andris Strautmanis, a former head of the investigation division of the Soviet spy company in Latvia. (Final 12 months, Strautmanis was arrested in a scandal involving a Latvian MP accused of spying for Russia.)Melniks additionally started to develop relationships with Russia-aligned businessmen and officers within the authorities of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. In 2011, the Riga Shipyard signed a transformative deal price tons of of tens of millions of {dollars} to promote a floating oil platform to Ukraine’s state-owned gasoline firm. Three years later, Melniks was awarded the Order of Friendship, one among Russia’s highest honours for foreigners, by president Vladimir Putin. In 2014, the 12 months that the UK Playing Fee accredited Melniks’ possession of the Mayfair on line casino licence, the Yanukovych authorities collapsed. Accused of siphoning off billions of {dollars} in corrupt funds to his interior circle, the Putin-aligned president fled to Russia. With Yanukovych gone, Ukrainian prosecutors started to dig into the oil rig transactions, ultimately alleging that Melniks acquired $15mn for his position in brokering a part of the deal. In 2018, Ukraine’s state prosecutors ordered a world freezing order on his belongings. This consisted of greater than 100 acres of land, a quad bike, a jet ski, a yacht and the shareholdings of 10 Latvian corporations, together with the final word proprietor of the Park Lane Membership in London. On the time, Melniks advised Latvian media the Ukrainian authorities’s try and freeze his belongings was “unlawful”, saying the investigation was politically motivated. He denied any wrongdoing.However the issues in Ukraine had put Melniks’ possession of the on line casino in jeopardy. In October 2018, he formally resigned as a director of the Park Lane Membership and was changed by a Swiss-Italian banker named Riccardo Tattoni. The on line casino’s legal professionals would later inform an English courtroom that, from that month, the only real proprietor of the Park Lane Membership turned SOGIP Providers Geneva SA, a small Swiss non-public financial institution run by Tattoni. Tattoni is a silver-haired, cigar-smoking financier who arranges polo competitions on his property in Tuscany in his spare time. He says he was first approached by purchasers who needed to finance an funding fronted by Melniks in 2014. The id of the purchasers who backed the Latvian, he provides, has to stay nameless resulting from Swiss financial institution secrecy legal guidelines.“Mr Melniks used a part of the mortgage to purchase Park Lane Membership and began working it, I believe efficiently,” Tattoni says. He claims he solely learnt of the issues in Ukraine in 2018. By then, Tattoni had determined it was in everyone’s finest curiosity if SOGIP took management of the on line casino. “He claimed he had nothing to cover; he was extra clear than a diamond; it was a political assault resulting from his previous,” Tattoni says. “The model of Melniks that he was a political sufferer was not unsuitable, I believe. However I can’t say; I don’t have the proof. The due diligence we might do regionally was very restricted.”Tattoni’s financial institution took management of the Park Lane Membership; Melniks was out utterly. In the meantime, a hunt was underneath approach to discover who was behind the theft. Craig Murray, the Park Lane Membership’s well dressed and clean-cut head of safety, had received the perfect have a look at the robber. On the time of the break-in, Murray was strolling down the road exterior the Hilton. Two cleaners who had fled the on line casino rushed in the direction of him. He might see they have been in misery. One among them frantically pointed on the resort’s revolving doorways, the place the person within the boiler go well with was rising. Murray started to comply with him. Utilizing his umbrella to cover his face and being cautious to maintain a distance of 20 ft or so, Murray watched the person flip the nook and enter a small sq. close by. The suspect stopped. He took off the boiler go well with, peeled off the balaclava and placed on a hat. Murray messaged a colleague contained in the on line casino, asking if the police have been on their approach and if he was going to have any back-up. He knew the person was more likely to be armed. The robber started shifting once more. Murray adopted him down into an underpass resulting in Hyde Park Nook. The 2 males, nonetheless 20 ft aside, emerged on to the opposite aspect going through the inexperienced. The rain was heavy now, and Hyde Park was abandoned. The person walked right into a wooded space not removed from an 18-foot-tall statue of Achilles and crouched down. Murray slowed his tempo, however tried to remain shut. It struck him how calm the person was. Not as soon as, since he’d left the on line casino, had he run. He’d walked at a reasonable tempo the whole time. He’d by no means even appeared again.

The theft — the primary of a London on line casino for many years — ­was final straw for Melniks. His firm duly took benefit of a regulation granting shareholders ‘at severe threat of violence’ anonymity © Salvatore Vitale

One clue as to the robber’s id was the truth that he averted the £5 banknotes within the money drawer. Casinos usually use small notes as ‘bait cash’, marked particularly within the occasion of theft © Salvatore Vitale

Harassed and making an attempt to seem innocuous, the safety guard lit a cigarette. The person was nonetheless crouching and gave the impression to be adjusting his clothes. However earlier than Murray might know for positive, he began off once more towards a Tube station. Simply earlier than reaching the underground entrance, the person stopped briefly to toss some gadgets in a bin. At that second, Murray lastly received shut sufficient to get a have a look at the thief.In a press release given to investigators on the day of the crime, Murray described the person as “very thickset” and as “jap European, round six foot and a half, nicely constructed and clear shaven”. There have been loads of potential suspects for investigators to look into: the Chechens who had apparently needed to put money into the on line casino by pressure; the nameless Russian-speaking males who tried to abduct Melniks; the Israeli strongmen who threatened his household; maybe an outdated nemesis from the mess in Ukraine. However police began within the park, combing the world for proof. An officer reached into the bin Murray had seen the thief linger over and found a black bag. Inside, she discovered a silver-coloured plastic gun, which had masking tape across the deal with. The bag additionally contained a single black sock. Surveillance footage of the crime wasn’t particularly useful; the robber had been closely disguised and had acted shortly, making it not possible to establish him. However Murray knew whoever had robbed the on line casino nearly actually needed to be knowledgeable, or what he and his safety crew referred to as “an inside agent”. A easily executed day-time break-in requires cautious casing and detailed planning. The felony had not solely demonstrated intricate information of the membership, however hadn’t exhibited the slightest trace of nerves.The Park Lane Membership’s head of safety pored over the on line casino’s membership checklist to see if anyone had not too long ago joined with the attainable intention of stealing. The search returned nothing. Murray and his colleagues started to observe tons of of hours of CCTV footage taken within the weeks earlier than the ­theft passed off. The safety crew obsessively studied the grainy surveillance photographs, as Melniks as soon as had.Then Murray noticed one thing on just a few frames of video recorded 5 days earlier than the theft. There he was: the person within the blue boiler go well with, dashing towards the on line casino’s again door. Though the footage was fuzzy, Murray might nearly make out the person’s face. He was surprised. Murray realised the one who’d robbed Melniks wasn’t an jap European, as he’d initially advised police. He wasn’t a gangster, or knowledgeable hit man. He was his buddy.On January 21 2019, a 41-year-old British man stood up in entrance of a choose at Southwark Crown Court docket in London and pleaded responsible to theft and possession of an imitation firearm. The person was Stuart Wigley, a former on line casino worker. Wigley, the sentencing choose stated, had carried out “a professionally deliberate, industrial theft” in opposition to his former employer. He was sentenced to 6 years in jail.The workers of the Park Lane Membership have been shocked. “On line casino robberies are exceptionally uncommon, however a theft involving a supervisor — that has by no means occurred earlier than in London,” says one former Park Lane Membership senior government. Nobody was extra baffled than Murray, who had spoken to Wigley on a near-daily foundation. That they had often taken espresso breaks collectively. They have been shut.On line casino workers are watched for indicators of potential issues, comparable to playing habit, alcoholism or drug use. Wigley, individuals who knew him say, exhibited none of those and had no earlier convictions or felony historical past. On the sentencing, even the choose famous it was onerous to grasp “why a person of fine character ought to all of the sudden, on the age of 39, commit such an offence”.Wigley had labored in London casinos for nearly 20 years, beginning in his early twenties and rising up the ranks to turn into a pit boss, the supervisor accountable for supervising the gaming flooring and conserving monitor of how cash is shifting across the tables. In 2014, he was headhunted to affix the Park Lane Membership and tasked with coaching among the new workers earlier than the on line casino opened.Wigley had initially appeared extremely bold and eager to be promoted to full supervisor. Nonetheless, he resigned from the Park Lane Membership a 12 months after it opened. In a press release to police, Murray stated Wigley had stop “as a result of he felt like he was not progressing as shortly as he needs to be, and the administration felt he was not assembly the requirements required” for promotion. Murray declined to remark for this story. He left the Park Lane Membership for a brand new job after the heist and later acquired a Metropolitan Police commendation for “braveness and investigative skill” for his position in fixing the crime.After being arrested, Wigley declined to say something in interviews with the police. He started to construct a defence, claiming he had by no means been on the on line casino that day. He additionally submitted a number of info requests to the police to attempt to show he had been driving his van on the time the crime passed off. Wigley declined to remark for this story.On the day of the trial, Wigley all of the sudden modified his plea to responsible. Information from his telephone indicated it had remained at dwelling the whole time the theft passed off. However exams confirmed that the sock discovered with the plastic gun contained his DNA. Wigley’s lawyer advised the courtroom that his consumer had been pushed to commit the crime in a panic attributable to needing to have a colonoscopy for abdomen most cancers the day after the theft passed off. He later found he was completely wholesome, and the sentencing choose stated the courtroom had “struggled to know how that issue might significantly have motivated him to commit this offence”. (Healthcare within the UK is free.) After the meticulous safety preparation, the paranoia, the surveillance, the boss’s shouting and his workers’ stress, all it had taken to breach the Park Lane Membership was a threadbare costume and a toy pistol. Melniks wasn’t within the courtroom to see Wigley plead responsible. Had he been, he may need been relieved it wasn’t any of his formidable antagonists who broke into the on line casino. Or maybe embarrassed. However the Latvian had stopped coming to London. Across the golden roulette tables of Mayfair anybody can turn into another person for an evening. However Melniks’ dream of completely reinventing himself had died. And the London awash in overseas money and overseas ambition that had made him consider it was even attainable was, looking back, fading too. Gilded ages are usually brief, and so they have a tendency to finish abruptly. A sorry little coda to the saga of the Park Lane Membership occurred in the direction of the top of 2020. With its new Swiss homeowners unable to fulfill the British gaming regulator about its “supply of funds”, the on line casino based by Melniks suffered the final word ignominy: its licence was suspended. It was the primary time the Playing Fee had ever revoked the licence of a bricks-and-­mortar on line casino. Yevhen Yenin, Ukraine’s deputy inside minister within the Zelensky authorities and beforehand the nation’s deputy prosecutor-general, celebrated the choice. “The licence for this on line casino was bought with stolen cash from the notorious oil rigs,” he wrote in November of that 12 months in a Fb publish. “All that continues to be is to return the cash stolen from the Ukrainian individuals (or a part of it) to Ukraine.”Melniks, nevertheless, was by no means charged with a criminal offense in Ukraine. He efficiently appealed to overturn the freezing of his belongings and the case in opposition to him lapsed. The investigation into the oil-rig offers, like nearly each corruption probe referring to the Yanukovych authorities, was by no means concluded. After the Russian invasion, it might by no means be. Tattoni, the Swiss banker, says the Park Lane Membership is now in the marketplace. (The on line casino has been allowed to lodge an attraction with the fee, that means it could actually proceed to commerce.) He hopes the membership can have a happier future underneath new administration. Put up-communist businessmen like Melniks who got here to strive their luck in Mayfair could also be gone now, identical to most of the flush Chinese language billionaires and a era of British aristocrats who got here earlier than them. However ­Tattoni believes it’s solely a matter of time earlier than new cash washes into London. “The situation is ideal; the identify is there,” he says. “The Park Lane Membership, run by the correct particular person, is a ­great alternative.” Miles Johnson is an FT investigative reporter Thanks to Casinò Lugano SA for permitting us to make use of it as the placement for our picture shoot. It’s not linked to our story. Assistants: Michaela Nagyidaiova, Bennett Smith, Christian Ruisi; Styling: Gigi AtelierFollow @FTMag on Twitter to seek out out about our newest tales first

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