UPDATE: The Mick’s memoir is published. See madouttamehead.com.
If you like this post, see all The Mick’s stories.
Alternate Title: Old Pal of The Mick Lives Fast, Dies Young
The Mick first heard of John Rowley in his days in the London underworld.
John Rowley was a conman and playboy who could charm anybody he met, all the while taking them for everything they had. Then he would spend everything on amazing excess. This story of John Rowley is entirely based on what he told The Mick and what The Mick saw with his own eyes.
After being sent to prison in Bogota for trafficking cocaine, The Mick heard of a John Rowley locked up in Medellin. He heard Rowley had been in a few knife fights. They became pen pals around 1986 and briefly met in 1990 after The Mick was released. He visited Rowley where he was finishing his sentence in Ibague.
Rowley had been involved in the 1983 Brinks-Mat robbery near London’s Heathrow Airport, the biggest gold heist in English history. A team of six masked gunmen armed with sawed-off shotguns stormed the security vault with inside information from Brinks’ warehouse security. Rowley was a gunman.
The team had only been aiming for £3 million in cash, but stumbled upon three tons of gold bullion worth £26 million ($200 million today). Here’s a National Geographic segment on the robbery, a small episode of the long story that ensued:
Gang leader Micky McAvoy was arrested and sentenced to 25 years. Also arrested were Brian Robinson and security guard / inside man Anthony Black. A scramble of double-cross and murder played out over the years. Insiders were knocked off while the criminal establishment of South London melted down and sold the gold.
Kenneth Noye disguised the gold’s origins and got rich until he was convicted of murder in 1996. City and private resources have been dispatched to recover whatever money it could before it’s all in global tax havens.
This 2000 BBC article recaps Brinks-Mat in all its glory:
Despite dogged police work spanning nearly two decades, it seems most of those involved have simply got away with it – and most of the gold will never be recovered … It is claimed in some quarters that anyone wearing gold jewellery bought in the UK after 1983, is probably wearing Brinks Mat.
Rowley didn’t hang around for the drama that followed the robbery. Three tons of gold and two boxes of diamonds are on the record as part of the loot. Not reported was a bag of Thomas Cook traveler’s checks Rowley kept. Rowley may have also gotten diamonds or a small cash payment before fleeing for Spain, then the Colombian islands of San Andres in 1984.
Rowley lived his good life in San Andres for a year passing off the traveler’s checks. With rudimentary Spanish he changed the checks for cash in Medellin and partied in San Andres. The bad checks eventually caught up with him and he was arrested in Medellin. Rowley was put in the Buenavista prison in Medellin, where he spent over five years. This is when The Mick and Rowley started a correspondence.
The Mick was released from prison in 1989 and found a job in Bogota teaching English. Rowley had been transferred to the Espinal prison near Ibague, and The Mick went to visit him. He brought Rowley fresh food and other treats unavailable in prison for their first face-to-face meeting. Rowley had no interest in the food; he wanted cocaine. The Mick slipped him seven grams, one of which Rowley vacuumed up his nose immediately. That was The Mick’s first impression of John Rowley.
Rowley was released in 1990 and went looking for The Mick in Bogota. He found him having lunch with his English institute boss. The surprised Mick went along with the amazing lies Rowley spun. By the end of lunch Rowley had a job at the same institute and a few days later was living in his new boss’ house.
Within a week Rowley had money for booze and coke and was having sex with the institute manager’s wife. Things quickly soured but Rowley scraped up enough money to leave the institute and started staying at hotels and brothels on credit. The Mick introduced him to his Colombian underworld friends, who needed a native English speaker for their cons. Before introducing Rowley, The Mick refused to vouch for him to the Colombian con men, and even warned them to be careful.
Fax machines were going mainstream and provided ample potential for scams, especially on banks. Rowley helped the Colombian crooks. However, Rowley also started getting over on them – asking for weekend loans he would never pay back or passing off checks and other stolen goods for more than they were worth. According to The Mick, Rowley was a fast talker who could manipulate people in English and Spanish.
The Mick had been shielding from Rowley a bar hangout of legitimate gringos he didn’t want Rowley to meet. Rowley found out about it and showed up. He introduced himself to the bar manager as The Mick’s partner, convincing him to cash a bad check. The Mick learned this the next morning when Rowley came back for more, the manager all too eager to sell him pesos for traveler’s checks at a favorable exchange rate on the dollar. The Mick started distancing himself from Rowley.
The Mick didn’t trust Rowley but they had a lot in common, both being gringo criminals and drunks. Rowley was generous with what he stole. He’d lay all his money on a discoteca table to spend on any indulgence they might have: beer, whisky, coke, marijuana, drinks for women. Rowley spent weeks at a time living in brothels. One time The Mick saw him being pleasured by six women.
Rowley soon stole from so many people and smoked so much crack that he broke down. Cold and shivery, Rowley met The Mick for lunch. Rowley asked for cocaine as they invited him to beer and aguardiente. The Mick says that with each snort or swallow, Rowley transformed into the smooth, manipulative guy he’d known before.
Rowley proposed a scam. He noted the British ambassador was traveling in China, then asked The Mick to call the embassy and, posing as a British tourist, find out the name of the interim ambassador. Once The Mick got the name, Rowley used a posh, uptown-London accent to call a top-notch hotel next to the embassy on Calle 100. He posed as the interim ambassador and explained that an important British diplomat had been robbed and needed immediate accommodation at the Embassy’s expense.
In new clothes from The Mick, Rowley played the British victim to get a room. The Mick says the hotel staff drooled over Rowley, intimidated by how he carried himself with an air of importance and urgency. And they were trying to upsell him as much as possible since he was on the embassy’s tab. They put him into new clothes and a watch. They brought him room service and bottles of booze. Rowley arranged for cash advances, withdrawing sizable amounts at each shift change of the hotel cashier.
At about his one-year mark as a free man in Bogota, Rowley invited The Mick to party with him at a brothel. Rowley had been there for a few days – drinking, snorting, and banging whores. The Mick joined him at a round booth with four or five girls. The girls were topless while making out and fondling each others’ breasts, each with a glass from the bottle of whisky on the table and each helping themselves to his pile of cocaine.
The tab grew as more whisky was drank, and cocaine disappeared. The Mick drank himself stupid, Rowley snuck off with various girls, night turned to dawn, dawn turned to sun, and The Mick woke up in Rowley’s room. Rowley had left, explaining to the brothel management that The Mick would settle up. He had to call one of his students for a loan to pay the 1 million peso tab.
The next The Mick heard of Rowley was that he was in a Bogota jail cell. He was picked up on a Bogota street. A security manager for one of the hotels he defrauded recognized him drinking a beeer at a tienda and called the police. Rowley did six months in La Modelo.
The Mick was angry about the brothel tab incident, but he let Rowley stay with him for a few nights after getting out. One night they were drinking late when The Mick went to bed around 3 am. He woke up to find his brand new stereo and speakers missing, and no sign of Rowley. On his calendar was a note that read, “Had to go, see you soon. Don’t worry about the money!”
The Mick swore Rowley off forever. A few months later, The Mick’s then-girlfriend met Rowley on the street where she was selling merchandise. He ran his game and lured her attention away, stealing the emeralds The Mick had given her to sell.
The Mick was walking downtown with that same girlfriend the next time he saw Rowley, who had by then become a bona fide crackhead. He was wearing shoes too small for his feet with no socks or laces, pants revealing his shins and tied at the waist with a rope, and a suit jacket with no shirt underneath. He begged The Mick for 500 pesos so he could get to the north of the city and rob. The girlfriend mentioned the emeralds and The Mick told him to fuck off.
The last The Mick heard of John Rowley came from a prison friend who was plugged into the downtown Bogota / Cartucho crack scene. Rowley had started robbing among that world and was soon wanted dead by different people. He got it with a knife on some unknown night, on some unknown Bogota street, by some unknown killer.
The Mick’s greatest memory of John Rowley was the Samantha Fox after-party.
Samantha Fox was a British pop singer on tour in Bogota. Rowley had just made a score and was providing everybody with mountains of pure cocaine at the after-party, and ordering bottles of champagne as a complement. They were the center of attention among that gorgeous singer and her entourage of rich and beautiful music industry gringos.
Here’s a clip from a British film about the Brinks-Mat heist, Fool’s Gold starring Sean Bean:
Death Warrant by Will Pearson was written about Kenneth Noye and what happened after the Brinks-Mat robbery.
Good article on Brinks-Mat heist, ‘Curse of Brinks-Mat heist claims its latest victim’.
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