Breaking The Bank: How a UFC fighter pulled off the biggest bank heist ever
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories to ever appear in the magazine. Today's selection is "Breaking The Bank," by L. Jon Wertheim, which ran in the April 14, 2008 issue.
Four years ago "Lightning" Lee Murray made his Ultimate Fighting Championships debut in Las Vegas. Today he sits in a prison cell in Morocco, the alleged mastermind in the largest cash heist in history. SO TELL US: IS THAT SOMETHING YOU MIGHT FIND INTERESTING?
With flashing blue lights illuminating his rearview mirror, Colin Dixon pulled his car to the side of a deserted road. It was around six on the evening of Feb. 21, 2006, and Dixon had just clocked out from his job at the Securitas cash depot in Tonbridge, England, 30 miles southeast of central London. A purposely nondescript, brown building tucked behind a car repair garage, the depot serves as a regional warehouse of sorts, where cash for the Bank of England is stored and disbursed. Dixon, 52, was the manager.
Now, driving home, he figured he was getting pulled over by an unmarked police car for a routine traffic stop. A tall, athletic-looking man in a police uniform approached. Though it would turn out that the cop was no cop at all—the uniform was fake, the Kent police badge he flashed had been purchased on eBay, and the guy's face had been distorted with help from a professional makeup artist—Dixon was compliant. He got out of his Nissan sedan and was handcuffed and placed in the back of the other car.
He would later testify that the driver, a second man in uniform, turned and said menacingly, "You will have guessed we are not policemen.... Don't do anything silly and you won't get hurt." When Dixon tried to adjust his handcuffs, he says the "officer" who'd apprehended him brandished a pistol and barked, "We're not f------ about. This is a nine-millimeter."
Dixon was blindfolded and transferred to a van, then taken to a remote farm in western Kent. Meanwhile, two other fake cops drove to Dixon's home in the nearby town of Herne Bay, along with accomplices in a second van. Greeted at the door by Dixon's wife, Lynn, they explained that her husband had been in a serious traffic accident. They said that Lynn and the couple's young child needed to accompany them to the hospital. Outside the home, the Dixons were placed in the back of the second van and taken to the farm, where the Dixons were reunited. At once relieved and terrified, they were bound and held at gunpoint. Colin Dixon was ordered to give the plotters information about the depot. "If you cooperate, no one will get hurt. Otherwise," one abductor warned, "you'll get a hole in you."
A group of at least seven men then drove to the Securitas depot, Colin Dixon accompanying a phony police officer in a sedan and his family bound in the back of a large, white Renault truck. By now it was after midnight on the morning of Feb. 22. Surveillance video shows Dixon being buzzed into the depot with an officer beside him. Once inside, the fake cop overpowers the security guard and buzzes in the rest of the robbers wearing ski masks and armed with high-powered weapons, including an AK-47. Dixon told the 14 staffers working the graveyard shift, "They've got my family," and instructed them not to touch the alarms. He proceeded to deactivate the security system and hand over the keys to the vault. The Dixons and the staff were then bound and placed in metal cages normally used for storing cash. The truck can be seen backing up to a loading dock.
The robbers clearly knew their way around the depot—where the doors were located and how they locked—and with good reason. One member of the gang, Ermir Hysenaj, 28, an Albanian immigrant, was the classic inside man. Months earlier, after just a 10-minute job interview, Hysenaj had been hired for roughly $11 an hour to work the evening shift at the depot. It was later revealed that in the weeks before the robbery, he had come to work wearing a small video camera hidden in his belt buckle.
For the next 40 minutes, the gang emptied the vault of its contents, wheeling metal carts filled with cash into the truck. The supply of £10 and £20 notes was so massive that by the time the truck was filled to capacity, it accounted for only one quarter of the money in the vault. Still, the conspirators absconded with a haul of £53 million, or more than $100 million.
If the caper didn't entail pyrotechnics worthy of, say, the current movie The Bank Job, it seemed to come off remarkably smoothly, at least from the robbers' perspective. All their discipline and meticulous preparation had paid off. There were no surprises. No one was physically injured, much less ventilated with bullets. No one had triggered the alarms. At around 3 a.m., Dixon's child was able to slither out of a metal cage and the police were summoned. By then the thieves were back at the farm divvying up the money—a bounty that one British prosecutor would later characterize as "dishonest gain almost beyond the dreams of avarice."
As investigators worked to crack the case, they began to suspect that the ringleader was Lee Murray, and that he and his pal Lea Rusha were the impostors who had first abducted Colin Dixon. Murray was no stranger to London law enforcement. He spent time in a juvenile detention center as an adolescent and later was tried and acquitted in a serious road-rage incident. Ironically, he'd also been questioned by police after a traffic stop in the area of the Securitas depot the summer before the robbery. But he was a prominent figure in pockets of the sports community as well, a fearsome British cage fighter who'd recently gone the distance against the great Brazilian champion Anderson Silva. Murray lost a decision and was paid the equivalent of a few thousand dollars for that fight. Now, Kent police contended, he was a fugitive in Morocco, luxuriating poolside at a villa in an upscale part of Rabat. Lightning Lee was now worth a small fortune in pounds sterling, they alleged, having just orchestrated the largest cash heist in history.
Lee Murray came into the world in 1977 with his fists balled, and he never quite seemed to unclench them. The son of a British mother and a Moroccan father—his given name is Lee Lamrani Ibrahim Murray—he grew up poor in public housing in a rough-and-tumble section near London's East End.
His salvation, such as it was, came through fighting. It wasn't so much what he did as who he was. By his own reckoning, he was a veteran of hundreds of street fights, lining up his target, transferring his weight and then unloading punches that would seem to detonate on impact. After so many bare-knuckle brawls, he figured, not unreasonably, that he might as well get paid for his violence. He frequented boxing and kickboxing gyms, channeling some of his primal tendencies into mixed martial arts (MMA), the increasingly popular sport that combines the striking of boxing and Muay Thai with the ground game of wrestling and jujitsu. In particular Murray had designs on competing in the Octagon, the eight-sided cage used for bouts in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the preeminent MMA league, which is headquartered in the U.S.
Murray recognized that while his stand-up fighting was exceptional, he was at a loss when a bout went to the ground. That is, he needed to improve his grappling and jujitsu, disciplines predicated less on brute strength and aggression than on technique and smarts. So in the winter of 2000 he packed a duffle bag, flew to the U.S. and made his way to gritty Bettendorf, Iowa. Pat Miletich, a former junior college wrestler and five-time UFC champion, had opened an MMA training gym in Bettendorf a few blocks from the banks of the Mississippi. Aspiring fighters came there from all over the world, making Miletich's gym to fighters what Florence was to Renaissance painters—though with bloodier canvasses.
To this day, Miletich's so-called Battlebox represents athletic Darwinism at its most brutal. Under the open-door policy, anyone is welcome to come and spar against a stable of regulars, many of whom have fought in the UFC. Self-styled tough guys show up every Monday. Those with the requisite skill and ruggedness stay. The other 95% are back on the interstate, bloodied and bruised, before sundown. Murray was one of the few who stuck it out. All bone and fast-twitch muscle, Murray was built like a sprinter. He stood 6'3" but could cut weight and fight as light as 170 pounds. One Miletich fighter likened the kid with the Cockney accent to a British greyhound. "Lee Murray had world-class punching power," recalls Robbie Lawler, a top mixed martial arts fighter who sparred frequently with Murray. "Man, he would hit the mitts—pop-pop-POP-POP—and you would stop your workout and look over because it sounded like gunfire."
Murray crashed with other Miletich fighters before getting a room at a shopworn motel not far from the gym. He wasn't averse to going out for a beer from time to time, but he'd come to America's heartland to train. When he wasn't in the gym, strip-mining Miletich for wrestling tips, he was lifting weights or going for runs under a big dome of Iowa sky. "Not one sign of trouble," says Miletich. "One of his first days, I told him, 'It's up to you how far you want to go in this sport. At your height and weight and the way you hit, you could be a champion.' It was just a question of learning what to do once the fight hit the ground."
That spring, Murray entered a four-man MMA tournament in rural Wisconsin. After winning his first bout, Murray fought a burly Canadian, Joe Doerksen, now a UFC veteran. Murray showed his inexperience and got caught in a submission hold called an arm bar. He "tapped out" (surrendered) and cursed himself the entire drive back to Iowa. Having exhausted his budget, Murray returned to England. But he kept fighting and started to win. While MMA was becoming mainstream in the U.S., the sport was still an underground pursuit in the U.K. Still, among the niche audience Murray was regarded as perhaps England's best fighter. "He was one of those guys who rose to the occasion when he fought," says Paul Ivens, an instructor at the London Shootfighters Club, where Murray often trained. "You get guys who are tough on the street but they crumble in a real fight. He was one of the fortunate ones who would bask under pressure."
In July 2002 Murray attended a UFC card at Royal Albert Hall in London. The UFC was trying to spread the gospel to the other side of the pond, and in addition to the fighters on the card, most of the organization's brightest stars were on hand, including Miletich, Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. The headline bout featured a Miletich fighter, Matt Hughes, defending his welterweight title. After the card ended, the fighters repaired to a local club for an after party, a long-standing UFC tradition. At closing time the fighters and their entourages filed out. Walking down the street, Miletich felt a body on his back. It turned out to be a buddy of Tito Ortiz's. The guy was giving Miletich a playful bear hug, but suddenly Miletich felt the man getting ripped off his back. Another fighter had mistakenly believed that Miletich was being attacked. As the misunderstanding was being sorted out, Paul (the Enforcer) Allen, a longtime associate of Murray's, approached. In what he surely thought was a show of loyalty to both Miletich and Murray, Allen cold-cocked Ortiz's pal.
This triggered what might rank as the Mother of All Street Fights, a scene that's become as much a part of UFC lore as any bout inside the Octagon. A who's who of the UFC and their entourages—drunk and in street clothes—began throwing haymakers indiscriminately. One posse member was knocked into the street and his arm was run over by a cab. Liddell got cracked in the back of the head and went ballistic. "I'm hitting guys with spinning backfists, just dropping guys," says Liddell. "It was a classic street fight. 'If I don't know you, I drop you.'"
In the mayhem Ortiz and Murray backed into an alley and squared off. According to multiple witnesses, Ortiz threw a left hook. He missed, and Murray then fired off a combination that decked Ortiz. The self-proclaimed Bad Boy of the UFC fell to the pavement. (Ortiz declined to comment to SI.) Officially, Murray was still a promising up-and-comer. But as accounts of the melee rocketed through UFC circles, the rangy British kid who poleaxed the mighty Tito Ortiz became a minor legend. "He's a scary son of a bitch," says the UFC's outspoken president, Dana White. "And I don't mean fighterwise."
As for sanctioned fights, Murray continued to win those too, mostly with devastating knockouts. In July 2003, he took on the well-regarded Brazilian fighter José (Pelé) Landi-Jons at a London event. After getting pummeled for a round, Murray regrouped and starched Pelé with a right hand. "He's probably still in the ring, probably still sleeping, catchin' flies," Murray gloated in the postfight interview, mimicking the dazed, open-mouthed look of his opponent. "I know now that ... [the] UFC have gotta open their eyes to me, they gotta take me. There's no ifs or buts." Sure enough, six months later Murray was summoned by the UFC to fight on a Las Vegas card. Concealing the inconvenient detail that he'd recently been questioned about his involvement in a road-rage incident that left a middle-aged motorist in a coma—he was later charged with causing "grievous bodily harm," but the jury failed to reach a verdict—Murray flew to the U.S. He won the fight in the first round, trapping his opponent's head between his legs as he tried for a triangle choke, then finishing him off with an arm bar, hyperextending the man's elbow joint. He had reached the highest level, and all of his discipline and preparation had paid off: He'd won with a classic jujitsu maneuver, proving he was no one-dimensional fighter.
Murray's next bout came in the summer of 2004 in Cage Rage, a British UFC knockoff. He was pitted against Anderson Silva, the ferocious Brazilian who is currently the Zeus of MMA. Emboldened by his recent success, Murray snarled at Silva at the weigh-in. "He talked an unbelievable amount of s---," Silva remembers. "He said, 'I'm gonna do to you what I did to your friend Pelé.'" According to Silva, at one point Murray spotted a pair of his fighting shorts hanging from a chair. Murray grabbed them, ripped off a Brazilian flag patch and tossed it at Silva. Though both fighters dispensed and withstood considerable punishment, Silva ended up winning by unanimous decision. As the two shook hands, Silva winked and pushed a gift into Murray's palm. It was the patch of the Brazilian flag. Still, Murray did himself proud, all the more so in retrospect, as Silva would go on to become one of the UFC's brightest stars.
But in September 2005, while training for an upcoming fight at Wembley Stadium, Murray attended a birthday party for a British model at Funky Buddha, a trendy club in London's Mayfair district. At around 3:15 a.m., a street brawl broke out. Murray was stabbed repeatedly in the chest, suffering a punctured lung and a severed artery. As he explained in a 2005 interview with the website MMAweekly.com, "One of my friends got involved in the fight. I tried to help him because about six or seven guys was on [him]. That's when I got stabbed. I got stabbed in the head first. I thought it was a punch. When I felt the blood coming down my face, I just wiped the blood and just continued to fight. Next, I looked down at my chest and blood was literally shooting out of my chest.... It was literally flying out of my chest like a yard in front of me.... I died three times. They said, 'Because you're an athlete and all the training you put your body through, that's what saved your life.'"
In the same interview, he casually noted that he had been stabbed outside the same club a week earlier. On that occasion, he'd "only" had one of his nipples sliced off. "It was just a minor stabbing, like these things happen every night of the week," says Andy Geer, a British promoter for Cage Rage. "He had stab wounds, bullet wounds. He was a proper from-the-streets kid."
Three weeks after the stabbing, though covered in zippers of scars, Murray had resumed his training in the gym. But realistically, his promising career was threatened. Particularly as mixed martial arts was becoming gentrified, what promoter would permit a man with such serious injuries to fight again? What if a scar opened during a fight? Murray may have realized as much, and that could have been an incentive to turn to crime.
The thieves took too much money. Had the Securitas gang made off with, say, a few million pounds, it might have been one thing. But the magnitude of the heist was such that overnight it became an international cause célèbre. Even the most staid British newspapers covered the case breathlessly and exhaustively. The surveillance video from the depot was televised nationally and, inevitably, made it online. Hundreds of British policemen were immediately deployed to investigate. Hefty reward money provided an incentive to anyone with any knowledge to come forward. "The gang had no chance," says Howard Sounes, the British author of a forthcoming book on the heist.
The suspects, though, also did plenty to hasten their demise. Mirroring Murray's fighting career—disciplined and methodical in MMA; arrogant and unthinking in street brawls—the same thieves who had been smooth and poised in the actual pilferage could scarcely have been sloppier in the aftermath. Some gang members boasted to friends about the heist. One of the vehicles used in the crime was set afire in the middle of a field, attracting attention. The money was poorly hidden. Ocean's 11 quickly devolved into a comedy of errors that recalled the Al Pacino classic Dog Day Afternoon. "That's what happens," says Bruce Reynolds, the convicted mastermind of Britain's Great Train Robbery of 1963 and now something of an armchair analyst of British crime. "All the planning goes into the robbery and none goes into what happens once you have the money."
Within 48 hours, police had made their first arrest. Acting on a tip, they apprehended Michelle Hogg, a makeup artist and the daughter of a policeman. Police found a quantity of latex they alleged Hogg had used to make prosthetic disguises for the robbers. (Under questioning, Hogg gave a statement saying she was too scared to identify the thieves.) Later that day, police found the van used to hold the Dixons. The next day, acting on another tip, they located a second van used in the robbery. When they looked inside, they found guns, ski masks, bandannas and £1.3 million in cash. Acting on still another tip the following day, police raided the homes of Murray's pal Lea Rusha, an aspiring mixed martial arts fighter, and Rusha's friend Jetmir Bucpapa. In Rusha's bedroom, police found plans of the Securitas depot, and hidden in a nearby garage was £8.6 million in cash.
All told, within 10 days, five people had been charged. Millions of pounds had been recovered. And innumerable additional leads had surfaced. "A gang of misfits and bruisers pulled off the biggest robbery ever with considerable criminal aplomb," says Sounes. "But they were also stupid. This was a brilliant caper which turned into a farce."
The fate of the accused was sealed in the fall of 2006 when Hogg "went QE" (Queen's Evidence), as the Brits say, and testified against her co-conspirators in exchange for her freedom. She explained how she created the disguises so the gang members who posed as police officers couldn't be accurately identified.
On Jan. 28, 2008, after seven months of trial during which more than 200 witnesses were called, five men—including Rusha, Bucpapa and Hysenaj, the insider—were found guilty for their part in the robbery and sentenced to a total of 140 years in jail. At the sentencing, authorities urged the public to resist romanticizing the caper. Fearing for their lives after giving extensive testimony, the Dixons entered the British equivalent of witness protection. So did Hogg, the makeup artist, who, according to multiple newspaper accounts, has a £7 million bounty on her head. "This crime was, at heart, a crime of violence," Nigel Pilkington of the Crown Prosecution Service told reporters. And with more than half the loot still unaccounted for, he vowed to continue to pursue the case. "This is not the end of the matter for these criminals," he said. "We intend to seize their ill-gotten gains, wherever they may be."
As the Securitas gang was being rounded up systematically, Murray apparently did not stand idly by. He left the country, leaving his wife and two children behind. Accompanied by his friend Paul Allen—he of the infamous UFC street brawl—he drove from London to Dover. There, according to Kent police, the two piloted their car onto a ferry headed for France. Murray is believed to have then traveled from France to Amsterdam to Spain, where he and Allen crossed the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry before finally finding sanctuary in Morocco.
If Morocco has historically held a certain exotic allure for Europeans, Murray is believed to have gone there for more practical reasons. Because of his lineage on his father's side, Murray is considered a Moroccan national. And Morocco has no formal extradition agreement with Great Britain.
By all accounts, Murray lived lavishly in Northern Africa. He, Allen and two other friends from England, Gary Armitage and Mustafa Basar, lived in a villa in Souissi, an upscale district popular with diplomats, in Morocco's capital city, Rabat. They tooled around town in a Mercedes and spent prodigious amounts of money on clothes, jewelry, electronic equipment and jaunts to Casablanca.
After a few months, Murray reportedly spent close to $1 million on a concrete manor around the corner from a cousin of Morocco's king, Mohammed VI, outfitting it with an additional £200,000 in upgrades that include marble floors and a fully equipped gym. He also commissioned a giant mural above the hot tub, depicting his victory in his one and only UFC fight. Allen bought a property of his own nearby.
Shortly after Murray's arrival in Morocco in March '06, the Kent police and Scotland Yard officials handling the investigation contacted Moroccan authorities and conveyed their concerns. Likely unbeknownst to Murray, almost from the day he arrived in the country he was under 24-hour surveillance. On June 25, 2006, dozens of Moroccan police sealed off a portion of the Mega Mall in Rabat, where Murray, Allen, Armitage and Basar were shopping. Because some of the suspects were experts in martial arts (and were potentially carrying weapons), the small army of police officers was armed. After a physical struggle, the four men were arrested. A Kent police spokeswoman asserted that Murray was arrested "for offenses linked to the £53 million Securitas raid."
When the Moroccan police went to Murray's residence, they found cocaine and marijuana. The four men were charged with drug possession and for violently resisting when police arrested them at the mall, a crime a Moroccan judge termed "beating and humiliating members of the security forces." They were found guilty and in February 2007 received sentences ranging from four to eight months in prison. Armitage and Basar were released soon after for time served and returned to the U.K. Allen was extradited by the British government and is currently in a British jail, awaiting trial for his alleged role in the heist.
Murray's situation was somewhat more complicated. Because of his Moroccan heritage, the U.K.'s extradition request was initially denied. "The British government has been putting a lot of pressure on Morocco," says Abdellah Benlamhidi Aissaoui, Murray's lawyer in Morocco. "But Moroccan nationals cannot be extradited [from Morocco]. That is the law, and the law should govern."
The Moroccan government discussed swapping Murray for Mohamed Karbouzi, a suspected terrorist living in London and sought for questioning in a 2003 Casablanca bombing. But the British government reportedly declined the exchange. Aissaoui says he has also heard that Britain might file a formal request to have Murray tried for the Securitas heist by Moroccan authorities in Morocco. While the extradition mess is being sorted out, Murray, at the behest of Britain, sits in a jail cell just outside Rabat, a caged cage fighter. "It's tough for him," says his lawyer. "He states that he's innocent. He has not participated in this robbery. He made money from his fights. He doesn't need to do this."
If Murray was in fact the ringleader, the Mr. Big, it wouldn't surprise Reynolds, the Great Train Robber. He compares a heist to sport. "You're challenging the authority of the state—the challenge is what it's all about," says Reynolds, now 76 and living outside London. "[Same as] Jesse James and Pancho Villa." What about the money? "It's a benchmark. Everyone wants to beat the record. It's like [Formula One] drivers want to beat Michael Schumacher's record."
Murray isn't granting interviews these days (his lawyer says that for Murray to speak to SI "is impossible right now"), much less speaking publicly about his guilt or innocence with respect to the heist. But he told a friend this story: After learning about Murray's saga—the street fights, the stabbing, the Securitas accusation—a London casino wrote him a formal letter explaining that he was no longer welcome at the establishment. That was fine by Murray. He says he wrote a quick note back: "Haven't you already heard? I hit the jackpot."