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Dead in the Water — fire, fraud and murder on the high seas

Every now and again, a news reporter will encounter a story where none of the explanations provided makes sense. Instinct will suggest a more complex and interesting story is lurking in the tapestry of obfuscations. Dead in the Water is a triumphant example of what happens when editors give reporters the time to pull at such a story’s threads until the deceptions unravel.

The result — by two journalists from Bloomberg Businessweek — is in part a well-written, well-paced thriller. But it is also a morality tale. It pits innocent seafarers and a maritime surveyor against people who seem to have deliberately set fire to the Brillante Virtuoso, a Suezmax oil tanker — so called because it is the biggest type that can use the Suez Canal. Investigators who are determined to resist a $77mn fraudulent insurance claim are set against those prepared to settle the claim as the path of least resistance. At the heart of the story is at least one still unsolved murder.

The initial facts, however, are humdrum. In July 2011, the Brillante Virtuoso, carrying 1mn barrels of oil from Kerch, in Ukraine, to China, was attacked by a group of armed men just off Aden in Yemen. The attackers made their way on board and, after the crew abandoned ship, it became clear the vessel was on fire. Given the ship’s location on the edge of the area then patrolled by Somali pirates, there was little initial resistance to the idea that the incident was a pirate attack. It looked like freak mischance that the attackers, in contrast to other pirates, set the ship on fire.

The narrative came into doubt only when David Mockett, a British maritime surveyor who lived in Aden, gained access to the vessel. He struggled to match the evidence he found on board with the story the insurers had been told. The story grew far darker when, two weeks after the initial incident, Mockett was killed by an explosion in his car.

The remainder of the book recounts the multiple tussles within the legal team representing the various parties that insured the Brillante Virtuoso as they are confronted with growing evidence that the incident was a fraud. Many of the arguments revolved around a sensational civil case heard in London’s Royal Courts of Justice between February and July 2019. In the case, Mr Justice Teare considered whether the cause of the fire absolved the various insurers and Lloyd’s of London syndicates that had insured the vessel from paying out to the vessel’s owners or Piraeus Bank, which had financed it.

The case produced a judgment nearly 80,000 words long which concluded that the “orchestrator” of the events that led to the ship’s loss was Marios Iliopoulos, the Athens-based ultimate owner of the vessel. Iliopoulos, the judge wrote, had a motive to want the vessel to suffer a fire to solve the “serious financial difficulties” his companies were facing.

Iliopoulos in a previous court hearing had angrily denied involvement in any such conspiracy. Dead in the Water recounts how, after he gave the last of his evidence in the court case, Iliopoulos was briefly questioned by City of London Police about the incident, but released without charge.

The story, however, is about far more than how the vessel came to catch fire, artfully and economically though Campbell and Chellel tell that story. It instead raises compelling questions about London’s world-renowned financial, insurance and legal markets. The apparent resignation of some of the lawyers and insurers involved to the inevitability of settling suggests a corrosive willingness to neglect the moral aspect of the institutions’ functioning. That aspect of London’s financial and legal system has been further exposed in recent weeks by evidence of its profound links to the questionable wealth of many Russian oligarchs.

Dead in the Water offers no false optimism that the system is about to change. While the insurance claim of the bank that financed the Brillante Virtuoso was rejected, the apparent perpetrators of the fraud received tens of millions of dollars, which there is no prospect of their losing. The only satisfaction for David Mockett’s widow has been that the judge in the lengthy court case sided with her husband’s assessment of what happened.

She was granted that satisfaction thanks to the tenacity of Richard Veale and Michael Conner, two former police officers hired to investigate the circumstances around the fire. They in turn received brave help from Allan Marquez, a crewman on the Brillante Virtuoso, and Dimitrios Plakakis, a witness to the behaviour of the salvage company involved. Dead in the Water suggests that, without their willingness to put themselves in considerable danger to give evidence, the claim might well have been quietly paid. Iliopoulos continues to do business in the world maritime industry, apparently unimpeded by a court’s ruling that he deliberately destroyed one of his own vessels.

Recent months have raised questions about the long-term sustainability of the City of London’s willingness to ask only minimal questions about the origins of the funds it handles and the probity of how they were earned. Dead in the Water makes a compelling case that those handling Russian oligarchs’ riches are not the only ones overdue for a rethink.

Dead in the Water: Murder and Fraud in the World’s Most Secretive Industry by Matthew Campbell and Kit Chellel, Portfolio $27/ Atlantic £18.99, 288 pages

Robert Wright is a former FT transport correspondent

Letter in response to this article:

You can’t judge a book by its contents either / From Jonathan Gaisman QC, London EC4, UK

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