At 6.30 on the morning of Saturday 26 November 1983, six armed robbers slipped into the Brink's-Mat high security warehouse in Heathrow, posing as relief guards. They immediately ripped off the uniform of a genuine security officer, doused him in petrol, and threatened to set him alight unless he told them the combination of the vaults containing gold. Another guard was coshed then punched in the stomach as he lay on the floor.
The gang took from the vault 6,800 Mars-bar-sized ingots of gold, weighing three tons, 1,000 carats in diamonds, platinum and travellers' cheques, a total of £26,369,778, the biggest haul in British criminal history.
Since then an army of police and private investigators has scoured the world in a quest to return the missing millions to their rightful owners. Several robbers, smelters, and their fences have been jailed and forced to pay compensation in out-of-court settlements for the loss, the whereabouts of the vast bulk of the gold remained a mystery. Until yesterday, only a handful of ageing cons knew the hiding place of an estimated £10m worth of ingots.
But in an extraordinary twist to the saga of the missing Brink's-Mat bullion, 30 officers from Scotland Yard's Flying Squad yesterday began digging up the concrete floor of a warehouse in Hastings on the south coast of England.
Equally sensationally, the suspected "owner" of the gold cache is Kenneth Noye, Britain's former most wanted criminal, now serving a life sentence for the M25 "road rage" murder of Stephen Cameron.
Noye was convicted of handling gold from the robbery, served eight years of a 14-year sentence and was released in 1994. He paid £3m to the loss adjusters in an out-of-court settlement but the police have always suspected that the master criminal had far than that still stashed from the robbery.
The Independent understands that in the last week detectives from the Met's robbery squad obtained information about Noye's share of the gold being buried at R Winchester and Co Timber yard.
Yesterday morning officers in blue police overalls turned up at the yard on the Graystone Lane, off Old London Road, with X-ray imaging equipment, a mechanical digger, and a pneumatic drill. After a detailed search among the stacks of timber two officers started digging in the centre of one of the buildings. They expect the gold hunt to take several days, even months.
The dramatic development is typical of a crime whose ramifications have continued for more than a decade. The police were quickly onto the gang responsible for the heist, described at the time as the "crime of the century".
Only days later, detectives latched on to Tony Black, the last guard to arrive on the morning of the robbery, 10 minutes late to work. He quickly confessed that he had provided inside information and a duplicate key. He identified three of the team as his brother-in-law Michael McAvoy, Brian Robinson, known as "The Colonel", and Tony White.
In December 1984 Robinson and McAvoy were jailed for 25 years each, and White was acquitted. Black got six years.
That still left a lot of villains at large and an extraordinary amount of gold. The bullion was in marked ingots of extremely high quality and could not be offered to legitimate dealers because it would be recognised immediately. Instead it was being smelted by a small firm, Scadlynn, on the outskirts of Bristol.
The gold was being delivered it in small parcels to London. Police believe that half was sold back to legitimate dealers, including Johnson Matthey, to whom it had belonged in the first place. Much of it ended up as expensive jewellery. The rest, believed to be worth more than £10m, was buried. A small amount of the gold has been recovered. Eleven bars were found in 1985 and a further £1m worth was retrieved from the Bank of England where it was being stored after re-entering the legal market.
The police quickly turned their attention to Noye, a well-known gold smuggler and notorious criminal. But a surveillance operation against him ended in disaster. An undercover police officer, John Fordham, clad in a balaclava helmet and surveillance overalls, was stabbed to death in the grounds of Noye's spacious home in West Kingsdowne in Kent, which was also guarded by two rottweilers Noye had named Brink's and Mat.
Noye, charged with murder, told a jury: "I just froze with horror. All I saw when I flashed my torch on this masked man was the two eye-holes and the mask. I thought I was going to be a dead man". He had stabbed the officer 11 times.
In November 1985, Noye was cleared of murder, claiming self defence. But eight months later he was jailed for 14 years for laundering the stolen bullion, along with his friend Brian Reader and Garth Chappell, a Scadlynn director. Reader was sentenced to nine years and Chappell to 10.
The following year the police turned their attention to the multi-millionaire John Palmer. Part of the haul from the robbery was found to have been melted down in a furnace at Mr Palmer's mansion in Bath. He was eventually charged with conspiring with Noye and Readers to handle the bullion, but he was acquitted and returned to Tenerife to continue his timeshare business.
John Fleming, nicknamed "Goldfinger", from south London, who fled to Spain, Costa Rica then Florida, was also accused of handling the stolen gold. He was freed in 1987 after a London magistrate threw out the case.
Once When the police and courts had done all they could with the available evidence, private investigators got to work. Lloyd's of London, the insurance market that paid out for the stolen gold, appointed investigators, Robert Bishop & Co, and offered a £2m reward for information leading to convictions and recovery of the missing millions.
Much of the cash from the bullion haul had entered the banking system, wending its way through a web of accounts. Other money was invested in property in Britain and Spain, which has mushroomed in value. The private eyes and financial experts were able to trace the money and, using the lower standards of proof in civil courts plus the added threat to seize assets, they have managed to force an estimated 25 people linked to the robbery to pay back £17m.
Noye was among those who paid up rather than face a civil case. Investigators tracked down £2.8m in bank accounts in Britain and Ireland. Noye agreed to the cash settlement after facing a High Court action over assets linked to the robbery. His payback was estimated to be about £3m. At least one other defendant has agreed to hand back more than Noye.
After the civil action it appeared that the Brink's-Mat trail had finally gone cold.
That was until Noye again burst into the news when he went on the run for the murder of Stephen Cameron, 21, who was stabbed to death in May 1996 on the M25 near Swanley in Kent following a road rage incident. Noye was eventually tracked down to his new life in Spain and brought to trial at the Old Bailey. In April last year the 53-year-old was sentenced to life for murder.
After he started serving his sentence in a high-security prison, rumours linking him with the missing bullion became hot gossip within the underworld. Prompted by this new-found celebrity, the Flying Squad began to investigate him again.
Noye is appealing against his murder conviction.