Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 17 News List

Hidden by the law

Michelle Hogg created disguises for the gang behind one of Britain's biggest bank heists and then testified for the prosecution. What is in store for her as she begins her life under the Witness Protection Program?

By Duncan Campbell  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Roger Coutts, one of the bank robbers against whom Michelle Hogg testified.

PHOTO: EPA

When Michelle Louise Hogg embarked on a theatrical make-up course at the London College of Fashion she can little have imagined that it would lead to her having to spend the rest of her life on the run. Nor can she have guessed that she would, one day, have to employ the very skills she learned for changing the appearances of actors to disguise herself.

The 33-year-old hairdresser from Woolwich, southeast London, was the first piece in the jigsaw puzzle that led Kent police to the gang who carried out Britain's largest ever cash robbery and made off with over US$105 million from the Securitas depot in Tonbridge, Kent. Last month, five of the gang allegedly at the center of the conspiracy were jailed at the Old Bailey criminal court in London.

Hogg had helped to disguise four of the robbers, using latex, false hair, grease paint and modeling wax, so that they could impersonate police officers without being recognized later. The prosthetic masks were well made and effective and none of the Securitas staff or the manager and his family who were kidnapped at gunpoint by the robbers were able to identify them. But within 24 hours of the lorry driving away with the looted money, there was a knock at Hogg's door.

It was the beginning of a frightening two years for the woman who had once worked on makeup counters at the London department stores Harvey Nichols and Selfridges.

The detectives who first interviewed Hogg found a flustered young woman clearly out of her depth in the midst of such a huge crime, one to which 100 officers had been assigned, three times as many as to an ordinary murder case. "I have committed no crime so far as I know," she said in a statement handed to the police by her lawyer. "I may have done some work innocently without any knowledge of how my work would be used. I would like to assist police further ... but I am terrified as to what may happen to me and my family if I say too much."

She told the police that she had assumed that the men needed the masks for a music video. She said that she would certainly never have embarked on the work if she had known anything illegal was involved. The police were not convinced and she was charged with conspiracy to commit robbery and conspiracy to kidnap.

When the trial started in court eight of the Old Bailey last July, Hogg was clearly in a very distressed state. She shook as she went into the dock alongside her seven co-defendants and was weeping, anxious and breathless. Some days she was too ill to attend court, and there were rumors of a breakdown. Eventually, she was given permission to sit outside the dock with her mother, as she claimed she was being intimidated by the other defendants. Four of them - Lea Rusha, Roger Coutts, Stuart Royle and Jetmir Bucpapa - knew that she would be able to identify them.

Then, halfway through the trial, came a dramatic twist. Her legal team approached the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and said that she was prepared to give evidence for the prosecution.

While the CPS' Roger Coe-Salazar said later that they were confident of securing convictions without Hogg, it was soon apparent that her evidence was dynamite.

She was adamant that she had disguised the men and denied that she was giving evidence to protect herself. There were angry clashes in the court. One of the defendants, Royle, who had sacked his lawyers and was defending himself, told her that "I am going to try and be as nice as I can." He admitted she had cut his hair at Hair Hectik shortly after he had had it dyed, but claimed that that was their only contact, and that she had never made a mask for him. "You trimmed my hair and said it looked nice," he told her as the cat and mouse game in the court developed. "You said I was a gentleman for helping you with your bags." She agreed that the new color suited him. But when he claimed that she must have been at a different bungalow from his when she fitted the men with their disguises, she shot back: "Bless you, Stuart, but it was that bungalow. I did a face cast of you, Stuart, a nose was made for you. I am sorry but that is the bungalow that I went to. You offered me a drink and a cake or a biscuit ... . You are absolutely lying and you are lying by saying the makeup wasn't done at your mom's bungalow."

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