In the summer of 2009, a dispute began between two erstwhile business partners when Bradford businessman, Stephen Thomas, walked into a police station and reported concerns over his dealings with Ralph Christie, a Leeds-born flooring retailer and contractor turned property developer, who had risen to prominence on the paradise Greek island of Crete over the course of the previous seven years.
The report led to the issue of civil proceedings by Thomas against Christie and two criminal trials in which Christie appeared as defendant. The first in Chania, the Cretan capital in 2013 and the second in the more urban surroundings of Bradford Crown Court in West Yorkshire, UK (read more here).
Judgment was given in favour of Thomas in the civil proceedings, in April 2013, whilst Christie was incarcerated in a Greek jail on Crete, ahead of the criminal trial. The claim totalled over 1.6 million euros.
At the Greek criminal trial, where Christie faced fraud and money laundering charges, he was emphatically acquitted. Thomas fled the island along with two other key prosecution witnesses, Susan Watt and Neil Waite, on the morning of the trial. In Greece, if civil proceedings are issued, the court, via judicial investigators, has the powers to advance the claim to criminal proceedings.
They claimed that they were the subject of intimidation, although the evidence behind that claim appears to be sparse and no proceedings have ever been brought against any alleged perpetrators, despite submissions to that effect by lawyers on behalf of Thomas, at the outset of the criminal trial, which caused an adjournment of almost 3 weeks.
Neither Thomas, nor Ms Watt, nor his civil lawyers turned up at the resumed hearing on 14th October, 2013.
In Bradford, fifteen months later, the jury cleared Christie of 14 of the 19 counts on the indictment. He was found guilty of the remaining 5, all for fraud by false representation, and received a sentence of 7 years imprisonment. Those guilty counts are still hotly disputed, as is the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) Order that was subsequently made in the same court in 2018 (read more here).
Two of the three witnesses who had fled Crete before the trial there did, however, give prosecution evidence in the Bradford trial. However, the jury did not believe either Watt, on seven of eight counts, or Waite on a separate single count. The guilty count, which concerned Stephen Thomas’ brother, Simon Thomas, is, according to Ralph Christie, the most controversial of the five.
A value of £55 million attached to all the offences on the indictment had been reduced to £486,000, plus interest by the time the POCA Order was made. Costing millions of pounds, and thousands of police officer, CPS lawyer and court hours, it amounts to one of the most spectacularly failed, and expensive, fraud investigations in police history. Yet, not one single West Yorkshire Police officer has faced a complaint investigation as a result of that shambles and the force remain determined to use every means possible to avoid doing so.
Ralph Christie contends strongly that his youngest brother, Cedric, a former police officer was the unseen hands behind the significant rise in the number of criminal charges that had grown from three to five to nineteen from the committal hearing at the now defunct Calderdale Magistrates Court, in April 2012 up to the final trial.
Stephen Thomas did not give evidence at Bradford, in spite of being the star witness for the police for years; nor did he feature on the indictment along with his former property development partner. Belated disclosures from West Yorkshire Police show that there were over 200 exhibits attached to his various statements made against Ralph Christie. None of which were in either the used, or unused, schedules of materials used, respectively, by the Crown Prosecution Service or disclosed to the defence team at trial. At least one of those exhibits was tainted as it comprised materials stolen from Ralph Christie’s villa in September, 2009. A fact of which WYP, and the Crown, were very well aware. But it didn’t appear an impediment to the latter when relying on that material during a Proceeds of Crime Act hearing in March, 2018.
An extraordinary situation and one that begs the question: What was Thomas saying to the police, and vice-versa, in all that time, and what were the police telling the CPS? One interesting fact that has emerged simply adds to the odour: The solicitor representing Stephen Thomas at the time, Phillip Sweeney of Opus Law, wrote to Detective Constable Charles Skidmore of West Yorkshire Police and pointed out that the witness statement presented to his client to sign was ‘neither accurate nor succinct nor representative of his [Stephen Thomas’] intructions to you’.
That inaccurate witness statement, processed by Skidmore, has never been produced to Ralph Christie, or his legal team during either criminal or civil proceedings, or via data subject access requests.
Thomas also appears to have enjoyed a charmed life, and a police and prosecutor safety net, with regard to other complaints and proceedings brought against him by his ex-wife, Jane Thomas, who alleges large scale fraud. These allegations feature in the judgment of the Greek criminal court. Matters that her former husband still denies. A final hearing is set to take place to settle these long running issues at Bradford Law Courts in November, 2020.
DC Skidmore has always been the subject of fierce criticism by Ralph Christie over his incompetence and apparent confirmation bias. Apart from the issues concerning the witness testimony of Stephen Thomas, the truthfulness, and motive, of a letter drafted by Skidmore and sent by David Levy, a very senior prosecutor, to the Greek authorities in 2011 has also been persistently and robustly challenged. To add to those, the background to how a memory stick belonging to Ralph Christie, believed to be product from the burglary at his villa in Crete in 2009, turned up at Dudley Hill Police Station in Bradford during the same month has never been properly explained by the police, or DC Skidmore, who was the officer fronting the investigation.
Yet the errant officer was allowed to retire from the force without facing any internal investigation, let alone sanction. A remark that also applies to the senior investigating officer in Operation Laggan, the codename for the ill-starred investigation set up to snare Ralph Christie. That was the hapless Detective Inspector Stephen Taylor. Formerly a close working colleague of Cedric Christie in the force’s Economic Crime Unit.
In December, 2011, a few months after he had retired, Cedric wrote to DI Taylor about the case against his elder brother and said: ‘You are really scraping the barrel now and you know what I mean. This concocted farce started just over 3 years ago and still no charges’.
The missive from his former colleague appeared to galvanise DI Taylor as the first charge was laid against Ralph Christie six weeks later. A theft charge upon which the jury returned a not guilty charge at Bradford Crown Court over three years later. The Greek authorities did not charge Christie with theft based on the same evidential materials.
On 22nd September 2020, at the picturesque Chania Court House in the administrative capital of Crete, Ralph Christie and Stephen Thomas are set to face one another in a further legal renewal. This time it is Christie who is in the driving seat in a much delayed appeal against the civil judgment, granted in favour of Thomas, as referred to earlier in this piece.
Given the findings of a three judge panel at the criminal trial, including the senior appellate judge on the island of Crete, in the same courtroom, Christie quite rightly assesses his chance of success as better than 50%. The bench found the Thomas allegations of fraud against Christie unproven and had some harsh words regarding his own conduct in concealing substantial investments abroad from his ex-wife during an acrimonious divorce settlement – and also from the UK and Greek tax authorities.
The three senior judges were also emphatic that the two men were business partners over a significant period, with ample documentation to that effect, despite a 54 page witness statement, filed and served by Thomas, going to considerable lengths to persuade the court that was not the case.
Under Greek law, that may pose a difficulty for him if he returns to the island for the hearing of civil claim appeal.
It is expected that the hearing will be relatively short, judgment will be reserved and handed down sometime during mid- to late October, 2020.
Ralph Christie, who will be represented by local lawyer George Komisopolis at the hearing says: “I am very hopeful that justice will prevail here in what is now my home country. The quashing of this judgment against me will impact markedly on other actions I am taking to clear my name, including the challenge against the Proceeds of Crime Order against me. That hearing, in my opinion, should have been delayed until after the conclusion of these proceedings in Chania”. He was previously represented by Dr Themistoklis Sofos, a leading Athens lawyer.
Stephen Thomas has been approached for comment. He is represented by Athenian lawyer Andreas Voltis and the Chania lawyer Nikolaos Giakoumakis.
UPDATE: A short report on the hearing can be read here.
Page last updated: Wednesday 23rd September, 2020 at 1000 hours
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