ECONOMY

How Two Ex-Cops Cracked a $100 Million Maritime Mystery

Richard Veale and Michael Conner flew from London to Athens a few days before their meeting with X-Ray. The two private investigators needed time to assess what they were walking into. X-Ray had come forward a few months earlier, in the spring of 2016, claiming to have critical information about the Brillante Virtuoso case, one of the strangest episodes of high-seas piracy that anyone in the shipping industry could remember.

Veale and Conner were instantly suspicious. The man had been reluctant to identify himself, and they’d decided to refer to him only by a code name. And he’d made it clear he was prepared to talk not because he wanted to help them find the truth, but because he thought there would be money in it—“millions,” as an adviser working with him put it. The only way to determine if the guy was for real, Veale and Conner reasoned, was to sound him out in person. So now, in September, they were in Athens, with a long list of questions for X-Ray.

Even after five years of investigation, there was still a lot that Veale and Conner, former detectives in London’s Metropolitan Police, didn’t understand. The Brillante Virtuoso was a giant oil tanker that had been attacked in July 2011 by bandits as it transited the Gulf of Aden, which divides Yemen from the Horn of Africa and was at the time thick with Somali pirates. Veale and Conner had been hired to get to the bottom of the incident by the Brillante’s insurers, a consortium of British and American companies that were on the hook for almost $100 million in payouts to Marios Iliopoulos, the wealthy Greek businessman who owned the vessel. The insurers and Iliopoulos were locked in a bitter legal dispute. Each side accused the other of breaking the law, and British police had arrested Iliopoulos on suspicion of fraud. (He denied wrongdoing and was never charged.) The insurers had hired a team of armed bodyguards for one of their lawyers in Greece, who’d been warned he was “marked for extermination.”

Veale and Conner decided to hold their rendezvous with X-Ray at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, a five-star palace with a reputation for discreet luxury. But they hadn’t selected the Grande Bretagne for its amenities. They liked that it was busy and public, with several popular restaurants and a stream of people coming and going throughout the day. It was also near the Greek Parliament and several embassies, which guaranteed a heavy police presence. Even the most determined criminal, Veale and Conner figured, would hesitate to plan an ambush there. If X-Ray really had crucial new information about the Brillante, it wasn’t inconceivable that someone would try to stop him from sharing it, perhaps violently. Nor could they be sure that he wasn’t secretly working for their adversaries, sent to lure them into a trap.

After studying the Grande Bretagne’s floor plans, Veale and Conner settled on having the discussion in a small conference suite on the mezzanine level. They noted with satisfaction that the room had thick wooden doors that opened slowly even when pulled very hard. If assailants tried to burst in, the delay could buy time to take cover.

They didn’t talk much as they arrived at the Grande Bretagne on the morning of the meeting, entering a lobby decorated with gilt-edged paintings of nautical scenes. They’d been working together long enough to know exactly what they needed to do next. The way they operated hadn’t changed much since they’d met in the early 1980s, chasing thieves and gangsters as young London cops. Veale, in his 50s with soft features and glasses, looked like an accountant, and he liked to disarm his targets by cracking jokes in the cockney slang he’d learned growing up in the working-class Docklands. But his easy manner belied a ferocious set of analytical skills, which had helped him build a lucrative second career unraveling complicated financial puzzles for corporate clients. Conner was the hard man, a few years older than Veale, with knuckles disfigured from his youth as an amateur boxer. He had glacier-blue eyes that could get a suspect talking with little more than a stare. At the Met, where he’d led organized-crime investigations, his nickname was “Metal Mickey.”

Veale and Conner had a clear plan for dealing with X-Ray, assuming they got to the point of actually speaking. They’d be friendly but firm, making it clear that they, not he, were in control. What Veale called “silly games”—providing inconsistent information, waffling about the veracity of an account, threatening to walk out—wouldn’t be tolerated. The objectives of the investigation were the only ones that mattered, and if X-Ray wanted money, he would have to meet them. “We are going to drain him for everything he knows,” Veale had told his clients back in London. “He should live to regret the day he ever met us,” Conner added.

The Brillante’s insurers had long suspected that the attack on the vessel was something other than a random act of piracy. Rather than boarding with ladders and grappling hooks or resorting to violence, the raiders had apparently talked their way onto the deck. And instead of holding the ship, its crew, and its cargo for ransom, the pirates had set off a catastrophic fire and abandoned the Brillante without explanation. Then there was the most unusual, and unsettling, aspect of the story: Shortly after the attack, a British maritime expert named David Mockett, who’d been hired to examine what remained of the vessel, was killed by a car bomb in the Yemeni port city of Aden. The murder was still unsolved.

Veale and Conner had come to believe that an elaborate conspiracy had played out on board the Brillante—perhaps the most audacious scam in the history of the shipping business. They were convinced that the owner, Iliopoulos, had hired fake pirates to attack and burn his ship to trigger a huge insurance payout, just as a debt-ridden bar owner might light a match to escape his failing business with cash in his pocket. But they’d found little concrete evidence and no direct witnesses. At one point the insurers, nervous about the optics of a public feud with a client, had seriously considered settling their legal fight with Iliopoulos. Veale and Conner hoped that X-Ray could change their calculus decisively.

In the meeting room at the Grande Bretagne, they went over their plan a final time with a local attorney who was working with the insurers and would be sitting in on the proceedings. As the clock neared 10 a.m., the attorney went to the lobby to wait. Soon he came back, accompanied by X-Ray and the man who was advising him, Christos. (The adviser’s name wasn’t disclosed in legal documents describing these interactions; Christos is an alias.) Everyone introduced themselves. X-Ray’s real name was Vassilios Theodorou. A marine engineer by training, he was over 6 feet tall, with huge arms, long hair, and a rough beard. This was a guy who could look after himself, Veale thought.

Theodorou and Christos said that they were only willing to have an informal conversation, to gauge whether they wanted to go further, and that the detectives couldn’t take notes. Veale politely refused, explaining that he needed at least a limited record of what was said. He was willing to accept another demand, however: that nothing they discussed that day could be used in court. If Theodorou’s knowledge was as significant as he claimed, and he really was willing to help the insurers, they could conduct more structured interviews later.

Speaking in a mixture of English and Greek, with the insurers’ attorney translating, Theodorou began by explaining how he’d come to be involved with the Brillante. He said that in 2011 he’d been working in Cuba when he got a call from Vassilios Vergos, a Greek military veteran whose company, Poseidon Salvage, had set up a branch in Yemen. Salvage crews are the shipping world’s private 911 service. When a vessel gets into trouble, they rush to the scene to plug leaks or put out fires, in return for a substantial percentage of the monetary value of whatever they manage to protect.

Theodorou recalled Vergos saying there was work for him in Yemen—a salvage job that, curiously, “hadn’t happened yet.” He flew back to Athens, then on to Aden, where he claimed to have been privy to the most intimate details of Vergos’s operation. As a member of Poseidon’s salvage crew, Theodorou said, he’d been one of the first people on board the Brillante after its crew fled the burning ship. He remembered that its deck was so hot it singed the soles of his boots. Yet despite providing Vergos with what he described as crucial assistance, Theodorou said he’d never been paid. (Vergos declined to comment in detail on the account presented here but accused Theodorou and others of fabricating allegations in an attempt to blackmail him. Theodorou didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Veale and Conner had been in the investigative game long enough to know that it was critical to keep a poker face when interviewing an informant. They kept their expressions fixed as Theodorou continued his story, but they were both thinking the same thing: If he was telling the truth, they were on the verge of a breakthrough: securing firsthand, eyewitness testimony about what befell the Brillante.

Theodorou had brought some evidence of his bona fides. After taking a laptop from his bag, he pulled up a series of photographs depicting the salvage of the Brillante. Although the detectives didn’t say it, all the pictures were new to them. Theodorou said he had more than 750 in total. But before he’d consider parting with the archive or providing a comprehensive statement describing what he’d witnessed, he wanted some assurances.

In the years since the attack, Theodorou said, Iliopoulos had warned him repeatedly to keep quiet. And Vergos had threatened that if Theodorou ever revealed what he knew, “we’ll end up in jail, but you’ll end up in the ground.” If the insurers wanted his help, Theodorou said, he’d need immunity from prosecution and assistance securing a new identity. Of course there would need to be a great deal of money involved.

Veale and Conner couldn’t make any guarantees on behalf of law enforcement. But money was something they might be able to provide, if they could verify the accuracy of what Theodorou had told them. They drew the meeting to a close. They’d gone some way toward establishing his credibility and his willingness to cooperate. For a first interview, that was more than enough.

After everyone else was gone, Veale and Conner looked at each other and burst out laughing. The weight of the last several days had lifted. Finally they had a real source. Conner opened up his notebook to add some more details from the meeting. “Motivation: revenge and money,” he wrote.

Veale needed to get his hands on some cash. It was March 2017, six months after their first meeting with Theodorou, and he and Conner were now preparing for another. This one would occur at a hotel on neutral ground, in Zurich. As the detectives explained to Theodorou, who feared being detained if he left Greece, Switzerland’s status as a non-European Union country meant it was beyond the scope of a European arrest warrant. British police had no power there.

In the intervening months, Conner and Veale had met twice more with Theodorou, learning a great deal. Theodorou claimed to have actually bought some of the guns carried by the pirates who boarded the Brillante, paying €1,500 ($1,630) for three Kalashnikov-style rifles before they set fire to the ship. And he’d told the detectives that much of the damage that had rendered the vessel useless had been inflicted by Vergos’s salvage team—himself included. Rather than trying to save the Brillante after the blaze started, he said, they’d gone around smashing open tanks and pipes, providing plenty of fuel.

But Veale and Conner still didn’t have Theodorou’s full cooperation, and he hadn’t handed over the photographs corroborating his account. He also refused to give a formal statement to British law enforcement unless Veale and Conner could guarantee he wouldn’t be prosecuted. They couldn’t, obviously, which left money as their only lever.

During their second meeting, Christos, Theodorou’s adviser, had suggested a reward of 10% of the Brillante’s insured value in exchange for the photos and a full download of what his client knew. That amounted to the better part of $10 million, which Veale and Conner viewed as preposterously high. Christos then made a series of other proposals, all in the millions of dollars. Veale responded to each with a mock-outraged “F— off,” though in their notes, which might have to be entered into evidence one day, they employed a gentler euphemism: “immediately rejected.”

At times the negotiations were combative. “The only reason we’re here is because my client is willing to help you,” Christos remarked at one point. Conner corrected him: “The only reason we’re here is because you blew up our ship.”

They were still far from an agreement, but the detectives had talked Christos and Theodorou down to a more realistic range of numbers, and Veale thought they might be able to close a deal in Zurich. To show they were serious, he’d decided to arrive with a pile of bank notes, big enough to look impressive. At London City Airport, Veale stopped at a foreign exchange counter. He asked for all the U.S. dollars they had. The clerk wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. Veale repeated the request: He wanted as much cash as they could give him. The staff on duty began cleaning out their drawers. The total amount of American currency they had on site turned out to be about $5,000, in bills as large as $100 and as small as $5. Veale zipped the brick into his backpack.

Conner was flying separately, traveling with Paul Cunningham, an executive from Talbot Underwriting Ltd., the insurer leading the consortium of companies that had covered the Brillante. Conner and Veale had argued about the wisdom of bringing Cunningham on the trip. Any mistake might scare off Theodorou, perhaps permanently, and Conner worried that Cunningham would have no idea how to carry himself. He handled client claims, not confidential sources. But Veale thought it was important to have a representative of the insurers hand over the money and receive the information it was purchasing.

To assess the risks in Zurich and give Cunningham time to settle in, Veale and Conner again arrived a couple of days early. They visited an old friend of Conner’s, a prolific gun collector, to quiz him on Swiss firearms laws. If someone were to fly in from, say, Greece, looking to do harm, how easy would it be for that person to bring a gun? (The answer was: nearly impossible.) At the collector’s place, they took the opportunity to rib Cunningham a bit—partly to pierce his anxiety, and partly because they couldn’t resist making him a straight man in their buddy-cop routine. “I’ll take the Sig,” Veale said, theatrically, as Conner’s friend showed off his cache of weapons. “Mick will have the Glock. Paul, what do you want?” It took Cunningham a long moment to realize Veale was joking.

The meeting room they’d booked was in a blandly contemporary Radisson overlooking Zurich Airport. There were plenty of police in the vicinity, and Veale appreciated that the hotel’s elevators were situated in a central atrium and had glass doors, so he could see who was coming up. Conner and Cunningham waited in the reception area. Theodorou strolled in with Christos at the appointed hour, looking tough and confident. Concerned that Cunningham might feel intimidated, Conner tried to lighten the mood. “Imagine him in prison,” he joked as Theodorou approached. “He’s just another bare bum in the shower.” The insurance executive broke into a grin.

After some pleasantries, Cunningham put the money on the meeting room table. The stack was arranged so the biggest notes were on the outside. “This is just to cover your expenses,” he said. Christos moved to take the money, but Theodorou stopped him, pushing it back toward Cunningham. Accepting the cash, everyone knew, would create at least some obligation, which appeared to make Theodorou pause. Veale and Conner had prepped Cunningham for this. He pushed the money forward again. This time Theodorou didn’t stop Christos.

Veale seized the opening, asking Theodorou to turn on his laptop. Before discussing further payment, Veale explained, the insurers needed to verify the authenticity of Theodorou’s photos. From his backpack he pulled out a USB thumb drive, still in its stiff plastic packaging, and a penknife to open it up. Christos flinched at the sight of the knife, prompting Theodorou to burst into a laugh that eased some of the tension in the room. Veale plugged the drive into the computer. Theodorou permitted Veale to download only a small part of the directory, a sample set of 23 photos and videos from the Brillante salvage. For the rest, Christos said, the insurers would need to hand over a lot more money.

After wrapping up the discussion, Veale, Conner, and Cunningham returned to their hotel. Cunningham was pale with fatigue and nerves, and the detectives bought him a beer to calm him down. As they drank, Cunningham asked Veale what he would have done with his knife if Theodorou had gotten violent. “I’d have stabbed him,” he deadpanned.

Back at his desk in London, Veale examined the photos in detail. He ran them through a forensic program called Proof Finder to confirm they’d been taken when Theodorou said they were: July 6, 2011, the day after the attack on the Brillante. Viewed sequentially, they showed something remarkable. Early in the morning, the inferno that had begun several hours before appeared to have died out, with only faint wisps of smoke visible from the salvage tugs attending to the tanker. Yet in images taken later, thick black plumes billowed from its hull. In between, it appeared, the salvage crews had accelerated the fire, just as Theodorou had said.

The photos were tantalizing, but Veale and Conner would need more. They thought Theodorou wanted to make a deal. He was a heavy smoker, and during their meetings Conner always accompanied him for cigarette breaks outside, chatting with him about his girlfriend, his tax problems, and anything else that was on his mind. Conner’s police background and familiarity with the seamier sides of business seemed to impress Theodorou; Theodorou reminded Conner of informants he used to deal with—a chancer, a percentage man, instinctively weighing the prospects for financial gain in any situation. Not someone who’d give up tens of thousands by insisting on millions.

“Tell me, Michael,” Theodorou once asked. “Will I get anything?”

“I don’t know,” Conner replied. Theodorou said he wouldn’t have believed Conner if he’d said anything different.

But in two further meetings, they still couldn’t come to an agreement. At one point, in May 2017, Theodorou suggested he’d accept $65,000 for the full image database. That was a sum Veale and Conner could work with. But afterward Christos corrected Theodorou. In fact, he said, the price was $3 million. They held a final discussion that July, back at the Grand Bretagne in Athens. Christos kept insisting on seven-digit figures. He also added a new twist. Christos claimed that the images Theodorou had allowed Veale to download had been carefully selected: “Some good, some not so good, some to confuse.” The same was true, Christos said, of the information his client had told them, though Theodorou himself insisted that he’d been truthful. Whatever the case, it would all make the material less useful in court. The only way to get a clear account would be to pay up. There was nothing else to say, and Veale and Conner were soon on a flight home.

The detectives never saw Theodorou again. He seemed to go to ground. Years later a London court would hear that he was hiding out somewhere in the Greek mountains, fearful that the authors of the Brillante attack would come after him for talking. His refusal to come to an agreement had deeply frustrated Veale and Conner. Theodorou had filled in a huge part of the story they were investigating, but without sworn testimony, none of that would be of much help in the legal battle between Iliopoulos and the Brillante’s insurers. They needed to find another witness—someone who could formally corroborate what Theodorou had told them.

Around the time that their discussions in Greece broke down, Veale and Conner received a tip about another man who, like Theodorou, had been aboard the Brillante in the immediate aftermath of its hijacking. He was “close to home,” the detectives’ source said.

“What does that mean?” Veale asked.

The man’s name was Dimitrios Plakakis. He was a former computer technician and financial controller who’d somehow ended up in business with Vassilios Vergos, the same Greek salvor who’d employed Theodorou in Yemen. Veale and Conner traced Plakakis to a flat on the second floor of a grand Victorian house. To do surveillance they hired some old colleagues from the Met, who came back with photographs of a slender, bookish figure talking into a mobile phone. Plakakis didn’t look like much of a criminal, so the detectives figured the best approach would be to just show up on his doorstep and put him on the spot.

It was the sort of thing they’d done countless times together as cops. Still, they were cautious. For all they knew, Plakakis might have been a captive, watched over by a team of Greek enforcers. Veale and Conner drove past the flat a few times to get a sense of the location, then went to the local library to scan the electoral register, which could tell them who else was living in the building. Veale also pulled plans from the land registry to work out where the entrances and exits were located.

They approached the house on a July morning, walking casually down the tree-lined street. They split up, Conner going to the front door while Veale stayed on the sidewalk, checking to see if anyone appeared in a window. There was no answer when Conner knocked. “Dimitrios!” he called out. Still no response. Veale crept around the back as Conner kept knocking. There, he noticed that the doors to the patio were wide open, letting in the summer breeze. After a silent nod to each other, they tried an old cop trick. “There’s no one here,” Conner hollered, loud enough to make sure he could be heard. Then he walked down the road a few paces before suddenly turning around. Plakakis was peering out from behind a curtain. Their eyes met, and Conner curled his index finger to beckon the man down.

Standing at his front door, Plakakis was shaking.

Conner reached out and took both his hands. “You don’t need to be afraid,” he said.

DEAD IN THE WATER: A True Story of Hijacking, Murder, and a Global Maritime Conspiracy will be published in the U.S. and Canada on May 3 by Portfolio and in the U.K. on May 12 by Atlantic Books.

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