Hijacking and Murder in Global Shipping’s Grim Underbelly
This is a story about one of the most audacious financial frauds in history. A very complicated conspiracy involving a $100 million oil tanker and also the murder of someone involved. We now know that David Mockett had sort of stumbled into one of the most lucrative maritime frauds in history.
He was assassinated with a bomb that was meant only for him. This is the story of a single oil tanker that was attacked and burned in what everyone thought was a piracy incident, but turned out to be something much darker and stranger. My assumption was that the days of Pirates of the Caribbean are ancient history and everything cleans up. But the more we dug into what happened to this one ship, the more criminality we found. This story really exposed just how corrupt and lawless, frankly, the global shipping industry can be. My name's Kit Chellel.
I'm a senior writer with Bloomberg and with Matthew Campbell, we are the authors of "Dead In The Water." Brillante Virtuoso was kind of a workhorse of international trade. It was like thousands of other oil tankers just taking a million barrels of from one port to another over and over again, several times a year. And the Brillante was very large. It was a 275-meter-long vessel, which believe it or not, does not put it among the very, very largest oil tankers and container ships, but it's huge. It's almost three football fields.
And on this particular journey, it was heading from Ukraine to China and had just passed through the Suez Canal and was sailing out into the Gulf of Aden. Now, the Gulf of Aden sits between Yemen in the north and the Horn of Africa, Somalia, in the south. And at the time of this voyage, summer of 2011, piracy was at its absolute height. There have been two more pirate attacks off the coast of Africa, bringing the number to eight in the past 12 days.
What used to go down several times a week is that, you know, little fast-moving boat carrying seven or eight guys with AK-47s would come up alongside these gigantic cargo ships carrying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cargo. And they would, you know, clamber their way aboard, take control of the vessel and then take it back to Somalia and demand millions of dollars in ransom. Any sailors on board such a vessel would've known that they were heading into waters where if pirates succeeded in getting aboard, they and their vessel could be taken hostage and perhaps taken to Somalia and held there for ransom for months or even years. Which is why there was this extra measure taken for security. They decided they needed a secure, you know, a security detail to go with them through the Gulf of Aden.
It was nearly midnight, and there was a couple of sailors on watch, both Filipino guys, and they spotted on the radar a small craft approaching. At first they had no idea what it was or what was going on, and of course they were terrified. But when the small boat approached they used a loud speaker to shout down, and the guys on the little vessel said, "We're security. We're the security detail. Can you lower your ladder so we can come aboard?" Within seconds of them arriving on the ship, they started waving their rifles around and commandeered the vessel, and it became clear very quickly this was a terrible situation for all the crew who were rounded up and locked in a TV room.
And then for the next couple of hours, they were sort of stuck in darkness, just listening and waiting, you know, dreading what might be happening. Their worst fear was that they'd be taken off to Somalia and locked in some prison, awaiting ransom payment to be paid. So they were all, you know, completely terrified. The ship started to move and then there was a loud explosion, and smoke started pouring into the TV room where all the crew were waiting.
And when they came out, they saw that these armed men had disappeared, apparently fled, and left the Brillante Virtuoso carrying a million barrels of oil burning. So when a large commercial vessel is destroyed or seriously damaged, this whole industry of people swings into action. And that's because a damaged commercial vessel that might be carrying, you know, 100, 200, $300 million of cargo or more, that might itself be worth $100 million or more. It is also, above all, a liability.
That vessel is insured, and that insurance policy could be valued in the many, many, many millions of dollars. So among the very first people who were brought in when there is a big marine accident, are what's called maritime surveyors. And a maritime surveyor is kind of like the person the insurance company would send if you had a tree fall on your house. The insurance company needs to, first of all, make sure that a tree actually did fall on your house, assess the damage, figure out if you, you know, perhaps pushed the tree onto your house intentionally, write up a report, and basically, all being well, that report is favorable and then your claim is paid. So a marine surveyor essentially does that on massive scale. And in the case of the Brillante Virtuoso, there was a very good marine surveyor, a British guy who happened to live in Yemen, in Aden, which was the nearest city to where this incident occurred.
So David Mockett is this big, brash confident guy with a booming laugh who lives an expat life in Yemen. And he knows the area very well, he's been there for a long time. And he's also, you know, an expert in shipping. He was once a master mariner with a commercial navy, and he's got decades of experience doing this work. So, you know, it's a problem, it's difficult to try and get out to a vessel 10 miles off the coast of Yemen that's ablaze. But for someone like David Mockett, it's something he's more than capable of doing.
So he hitches a ride on a fishing trawler to get out to the Brillante Virtuoso. But he did have some initial trouble getting on board the Brillante. It was a bit slow to get permission.
And the way that works is that when there is a marine accident, typically a vessel then becomes the property of what's called a salvage crew. And salvers are the 911 service of the high seas. When a vessel runs into trouble, comes to grief, salvage crews race to the scene to try and keep it from sinking, pull it off rocks, whatever needs to be done. And from that point on, the ship is the responsibility of salvage crews, who ultimately work for the ship's owners.
I think David Mockett would've known pretty early on that there was something suspicious about what happened to the Brillante Virtuoso. One of the things he noticed was there was no evidence of a rocket-propelled grenade strike. Supposedly an RPG had started the fire. David saw no evidence of this. He was confused by the fact that the pirate attack had occurred in the middle of the night, which is not typically how Somali pirates operate.
They would usually strike in daylight. He didn't notice any evidence of weapons being discharged, bullet holes or anything like that, which again, was was part of the story. So he didn't have any positive theory of what had occurred. He just had certain suspicions that there was more to it than the initial accounts suggested.
And when he arrived and spoke to the salvage crew, their attitude was kind of strange. They sat down and had dinner one evening, and the salvors were quizzing David Mockett about what he was doing in a place like Yemen. And the Greek salvage captain said to him, "You should be at home with your grandchildren. You shouldn't be in a place like this." David Mockett went back to his office in Aden and started the process of sending his reports back to London so the insurers could get a clear idea of what happened.
And in those early reports, you can see that he's suspicious about the whole thing. And indeed he tells his employers, "I need to go and find out what's happened." He's going to go and talk to his local government contacts. He's going to dig a bit deeper and try and find out the true story, but he never gets a chance to do that.
So on July 20, 2011, about two weeks after the attack and fire that all but destroyed the Brillante Virtuoso, David was working in his office in Aden as usual. He typically got to work very early in the morning, you know, between 7 and 8. He would work until lunchtime, and he would go home, have lunch at home, stay home for a few hours and then return to work later in the day. And, totally normal morning, he drove to his office, parked. And when it came time to go home for lunch, he got up, walked out the hall, climbed into his Lexus SUV and turned the key, drove out of the car park of this small office building, where he had his workspace, and then onto a very busy road, one of the main roads of Aden, actually. And he hadn't gone more than a couple hundred meters when a bomb that had been placed under the driver's seat detonated, killing him instantly.
There wasn't a big explosion. It was a very targeted incident in a way that really, you know, people afterwards could only explain as being assassination. Whoever placed that bomb wanted to kill David Mockett. So the British government did take some action, as it does when a Briton is killed abroad. The Foreign Office did try and ascertain the circumstances of what had occurred.
Ultimately, the Met police sent an investigator to Aden to liaise with the Yemeni police, but really, there was not much the British government could do. Yemen at this time was incredibly dangerous. There were no British diplomats in Aden whatsoever.
There was no British presence at all. You know, after the death of David Mockett, there was a there was an inquest into his death, and the coroner found that he'd been unlawfully killed but didn't know who had done it. There was no evidence as to who had killed him, but there was evidence at that inquest that he'd been targeted because he was on the verge of uncovering a criminal conspiracy.
But after that finding, you know, there was no police action. There was no full investigation. It was all just sort of forgotten about. The only thing that was left was an insurance dispute. So when a large vessel like the Brillante Virtuoso is destroyed, or effectively destroyed in this case, insurance companies, specifically insurers who operate through the Lloyd's of London insurance market, are on the hook for a great deal of money, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars. In this case, the vessel itself, what's called the hull insurance, was worth about $80 million.
There was also $100 million in cargo insurance because the oil on board was insured separately from the vessel itself. So this is a very large liability, even for big insurance companies, even at Lloyd's, which is the world's most important insurance market where they deal in huge transactions. And of course, if you are on the hook for that much money you generally would not want to pay it out, unless you're very confident that the claim is legitimate. In practice, they might settle, you know maybe pay you 50%, or maybe come to some other amicable arrangement. What they're very unlikely to do is to go to court to try and fight you about it. However, in the case of Brillante Virtuoso, these London insurers, looking at this huge bill with which they were faced and looking at the circumstances of what had occurred, and also taking into account the death of David Mockett, who was one of their own, a creature of the Lloyd's world and of the maritime world, they decided to fight and to go nose-to-nose in court.
And this insurance dispute had become, you know, overtly hostile. The Greek ship owner is a guy called Marios Iliopoulos, and they decided they weren't going to pay his claim on the basis that they didn't believe it was a genuine act of piracy. And so it sets the scene for this high-stakes London lawsuit, which turns out to be the best chance we're going to get to really understand what happened here. The owner specifically was a man named Marios Iliopoulos, who was a prominent Greek shipping tycoon, owned a fleet of oil tankers, also the owner of something called Seajets, which is one of the most popular fast-ferry services linking Athens to places like Mykonos and Santorini. And one of the fun things to know about Marios Iliopoulos is he has a hobby. He's a rally driver and a very successful rally driver.
He's known in the rally world as Super Mario. He tends to do quite well in rally races. Really a pursuit that requires nerves of steel and a certain disregard for risk, which would probably come in handy in the shipping business. Even years after the event, no one had got a satisfactory story out of the captain or the chief engineer of the ship. No one had sat down and interviewed the salvage crew.
Any evidence of what happened to the ship had been destroyed. The ship was sent off to a scrapyard and torn to pieces. So the insurers had an enormous challenge on their hands to prove that this was an act of fraud rather than an act of piracy. When you're seeking to invalidate in court an $80 million insurance claim, or a nearly $80 million insurance claim, you need a huge amount of evidence.
And one of the things you do is you hire private investigators. And there is a small universe of these guys, typically ex-police, who do a lot of insurance cases. So in this case, there were two private investigators who were hired named Richard Veale and Michael Conner. And they were digging deeper and deeper into what had happened to the ship and what happened to David Mockett. And they were doing, you know, the work that should have been done in the immediate aftermath of the attack, which is find the sailors, find the maritime officials, find the witnesses to what happened, and talk to them and get their stories. One of the whistle-blowers who came forward to tell the truth about the fraud on the Brillante Virtuoso was working with the salvage crew and arrived at the scene shortly after the attack, and was there as the salvage crew ensured that the fire didn't go out, that the ship was completely destroyed and that the insurance fraud had a better chance of success.
But because he was based in Yemen, because he knew the ship owner and because he knew the the salvage captain, had known them for several months, he witnessed all these events happening. He witnessed the planning. He knew that a vessel was going to come to Yemeni waters and be attacked and destroyed in an insurance fraud. He had absolutely vital information for the police and for the insurance investigators.
But he put his life at risk by revealing it. He had a life in Greece, and he had to flee in terror. You know, he had to get taken away by armed guards and put on a plane to the UK.
And, you know, when he gave evidence in court, the Greek whistle-blower was flanked by police officers from an unknown location. Like, he's still living in hiding. They also were able to interview a member of the crew who admitted later on that he had faked his story because he'd been threatened by Marios Iliopoulos.
So piecing all this evidence together, they were able to assemble a body of evidence that they felt was strong enough to really fight this case. The judge takes a few weeks to hand down his decision, but when he does, you know, it's a damning indictment of the ship owner. He says that Marios Iliopoulos is a dishonest witness, that he disgracefully threatened members of the courts, and that he's not telling the truth about, you know, what happens to the ship and what happens in the lawsuits. And his misconduct is so serious that this claim is thrown out.
A prosecution of David Mockett's murder by the UK was always gonna be a very long shot. This crime, the murder, occurred in a faraway land where Britain has no presence, obviously no jurisdiction. So expecting a British prosecution for that act, I think was always going to be a long shot. What I am much more surprised by is that no British law enforcement agency has seriously pursued a prosecution in what a London judge has now ruled was a fraud. One of the reasons that the police struggled to get to grips with what happens in maritime fraud is that it takes place in the cracks between the traditional areas of law enforcement. In this case, you had a Greek-owned ship carrying oil that was being traded out of Cyprus to China, crewed by Filipino sailors, flying the flag of Liberia in West Africa.
So you've got seven or eight different nation states already involved, and the question is, who prosecutes this crime? Whose job it is to deal with this? And the reality of law enforcement is that actually no one wants the job. It's incredibly difficult to investigate and prosecute any fraud that happens out at sea. And so most police forces around the world just decide that it's not for them to do, and they can't do it. And in the case of the Brillante Virtuoso, the police were interested. They were given evidence that something untoward had happened, and they decided it was going to be too difficult to prosecute a case.
No one has ever been prosecuted. No one has ever been charged for a very significant fraud that was attempted against the Lloyd's market, one of Britain's most important financial institutions. David Mockett spent a lifetime either working at sea or in far-flung ports around the world. And, you know, he was looking forward to spending, finally spending some time with his wife and his daughters and their grandchildren who loved him.
And, you know, the tragedy of the Brillante Virtuoso is that he was killed before he had a chance to do that. Iliopoulos did actually do OK financially, out of this, believe it or not. One of the things that happened was that the bank, which had loaned the money to Iliopoulos to buy the Brillante Virtuoso, wrote off the debt in the course of this litigation, concluding that it would never be recovered. So from the debt side, he was free and clear.
By destroying the vessel with a fire, he was able to, you know, escape debts of in the region of $60, $70 million, and the ship was losing enormous amount of money and was coming to towards the end of its life. So from a purely financial point of view, destroying the Brillante Virtuoso was the best thing he could have done. Part of me has expected people in the shipping world to come out and say, "It's not that bad. You know, it's not as bad as this one ship makes it appear to be." But no one's done that. And, you know, unfortunately I think, there is this criminal underbelly to global shipping that is thriving. And there seems to be very little that anyone can do about it.
And the more you dig, the worse it seems to look.