A retired detective has slammed a criminal trial in connection with a multimillion-pound raid at a cider-making family’s home as completely wrong.
Former detective chief inspector Charles Hill was contacted by Esmond Bulmer following a £2 million burglary at his home in Bruton, Somerset, in March 2009.
Fifteen paintings and a safe containing £400,000 worth of jewellery was taken from the home of Mr Bulmer, of the Bulmers cider family, while he was away in Barbados with his wife Susie.
The couple’s housesitter, Deborah Barnjum, was hooded and tied to a banister by balaclava-clad burglars who entered the sprawling property, known as the Pavilions, at about 10pm on March 20.
She was left painfully restrained after the burglars drove away in two cars, including Mr Bulmer’s Mercedes, and was only discovered 18 hours later.
Eleven men, including two builders who worked at the Pavilions, are now on trial at Bristol Crown Court in connection with the burglary and an alleged subsequent insurance fraud.
Mr Hill, who worked with the Metropolitan Police for 20 years, told the jury he had spoken to police and prosecutors before giving evidence in the case.
“I said conspiracy theories, such as the one that has been brought against these defendants, are wrong,” he said.
“The focus of this case should be on the assault and torture of the lady who was attached to the banister of the Pavilions, the Bulmer’s house.
“That should be the focus of this – not some insurance fraud. That is completely wrong.”
Mr Hill retired from Scotland Yard in 1997 and subsequently became a freelance art recovery specialist.
He is credited with helping to recover Edvard Munch’s The Scream after it was stolen in 1994, as well as other famous artworks.
In 2009, he was contacted by Mr Bulmer, a former MP, asking for help in recovering the stolen paintings after police said their inquiries had come to nothing.
Mr Hill was unable to take on the case, so put Mr Bulmer in touch with art detective Richard Ellis, a former colleague in the Met Police.
Mr Ellis arranged for an advert offering a £50,000 reward for the safe return of the paintings to be placed in the Antiques Trade Gazette in February 2015.
Months later, Mr Hill was contacted by a man named Jonathan Rees, who claimed to know former members of the SAS that could recover the paintings.
Following negotiations with Rees, who is now on trial for insurance fraud and perverting the course of justice, the reward was raised to £175,000.
All bar one of the paintings – Afterglow, Taplow by John Lavery – were returned to a secure location in London in August 2015.
Mr Hill said he believed Rees, who he is still working with to recover stolen artwork, was properly acting as an “agent” of Mr Bulmer.
“Esmond Bulmer had every right to get his property back under English common law and he could appoint agents in this case,” he said.
“There’s a good likelihood he [Rees] has done nothing wrong.”
Mr Hill said he, Mr Ellis and Rees had acted in good faith and “done the right things” when they worked to recover Mr Bulmer’s stolen paintings.
Following Rees’s arrest, Mr Hill sent a letter to the chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police asking for Rees’s bail conditions to be varied so they could contact each other.
He wrote that it was in the public interest for artworks to be recovered and said he was using information Rees had provided to solve antique crimes across the world.
In evidence to the jury, Mr Hill likened Rees to Winston Wolfe from Pulp Fiction – a “Mr Fixer kind of guy”.
He said: “I’m prepared to stand here today because Jonathan Rees has been charged.
“I think the charges he faces are both outrageous and wrong. There are good officers in Avon and Somerset Police – there’s one in court today.
“I will tell you straight that the block of them, particularly at the higher level, are incompetent and the trial here is their attempt to make amends.”
Mr Hill claimed the police had made a “disgraceful” insinuation about Mrs at the time of the raid.
“They thought she was a posho and she should be claiming on the insurance,” he told the jury.
Skinder Ali, 39, of no fixed address, Liam Judge, 42, and Matthew Evans, 41, both of Tuffley, Gloucestershire, deny conspiracy to commit burglary.
Ali, Mark Regan, 46, of no fixed address, Thomas Lynch, 43, of Small Heath, Birmingham, Donald Maliska, 63, of Dartford, David Price, 53, of Virginia Court, London, and Ike Obiamwie, 55, of Ealing, London, deny conspiracy to handle stolen goods, namely 15 paintings.
Maliska, Price, Obiamwie and Rees, of Weybridge, Surrey, deny conspiracy to defraud James Esmond Bulmer and Hiscox Insurance.
Nigel Blackburn, 60, of Hockley, Birmingham, and Azhar Mir, 65, of Solihull, deny entering into or becoming concerned in a money-laundering arrangement.
Rees denies doing acts tending and intended to pervert the course of justice.
The trial continues.