New information aids upcoming innocence claim bid

A case that began with a criminal investigation in July, 2009 is still beset, very nearly twelve years later, by impediments in two legal jurisdictions, thousands of miles apart, writes Neil Wilby.

In September, 2020, it was reported elsewhere on this website that an appeal hearing on the Greek island of Crete had been delayed by connected family court proceedings in Bradford (read here).

The respondent in both cases is Stephen Thomas. He was also the complainant that triggered the West Yorkshire Police probe into the financial dealings of his former business partner, Ralph Christie. A Leeds-born businessman who moved to the Greek paradise island in 2005 to work and live.

In the ensuing eight months, the family court matter involving Stephen Thomas was transferred to Leeds Combined Court Centre, to avoid a judicial conflict of interest, where the claim of his ex-wife, Jane Thomas, was dismissed in April, 2021. But is now said to be the subject of a permission appeal. It is understood that an application, by Mrs Thomas, to stay her claim until after the hearing of the Greek appeal, now listed for February, 2022, was refused.

The Court, Mrs Thomas and the solicitor acting for Mr Thomas, Kosar Hussain-Is’haq of Petherbridge Basra in Bradford, have all been approached for clarification.

The conflict between the property developing partners led to a civil claim being lodged in the Greek courts in 2009 that, because of the matters in issue, the judiciary later ruled should be investigated and then determined at a criminal trial. An option available within the court system in Greece.

The police investigation had, by then, rumbled on and an International Letter of Request sent to the Greek authorities in the name of the Head of Advocacy at the Crown Prosecution Service’s Central Fraud Unit in London, David Levy, petitioning the extradition of Ralph Christie, was sent in February 2011. As reported previously, it was drafted by a WYP detective constable, the now retired Charles Skidmore, and, apparently, signed ‘blind’ by Mr Levy. Further enquiries with the CPS have revealed that the letter emanated from their office in York, not London, adding to the doubts about its provenance.

No copy of a wet-signed or sealed copy of the Letter of Request has ever been provided to the Christie defence teams either in the UK or in Greece. Enquiries are continuing, as they say.

The letter contained a surprising number of significant falsehoods and lacked any apparent evidential foundation. Much the most harmful being that the Christie property empire had no land, property or cash assets. Absent of which, it is very arguable that the extradition would not have been sanctioned.

It was this Levy letter that had persuaded the Greek judges to deal with the Thomas civil claim as a criminal matter. Which was, of course, the intention of the police and CPS in West Yorkshire. Ralph Christie faced a prison sentence of 20 years if found guilty in Chania. The regime there being much more harsh on offenders, both in court and in their prisons. It would have saved the police and prosecutors in the UK a very expensive prosecution in the UK.

Over the years, it has emerged that the standard of evidence gathering by both DC Skidmore and the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO), Inspector Stephen Taylor, fell well below the required standard. They relied heavily on the various and evolving statements of Stephen Thomas and another former business associate, Susan Watt. The latter had been recruited to join the burgeoning Christie-Thomas empire from a collateral role as editor of the Crete Courier.

Ralph Christie maintains, with some justification, that Mrs Watt, married to a former police officer, Robert Watt, was the quasi-investigator in Crete and that view is reinforced by that fact that no WYP officer is known to have visited the island in connection with Operation Laggan, the codename given by the police to the investigation. All the offences with which he was ultimately charged related to property and land transactions on the island between 2007 and 2009.

From December, 2009 onwards, the time of his first police interview, the biggest proponent of the Ralph Christie innocence claim was his younger brother, Cedric Christie. A retired WYP inspector and, by coincidence, a former close working colleague of DI Taylor in the force’s Economic Crime Unit, which Cedric headed.

He stood for election to Police and Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire in November, 2012 and very nearly overturned the Labour Party-backed hot favourite. His sole platform was fighting police corruption and he appeared on BBC and ITV channels several times, and in local regional and national newspapers, highlighting the case of brother Ralph as a glaring example of police misdeeds. The author of this article was Cedric Christie’s PCC campaign manager.

The bare facts are that the first court appearance in this country for Ralph Christie was in April, 2012 at the now defunct Calderdale Magistrates’ Court. The case, involving just three charges at that time, with a total value of less than €500,000, was remitted from there to Bradford Crown Court. The trial was, eventually, heard from January to March, 2015 and the jury found him guilty of five of the nineteen charges on the indictment. Those related to fraud by false representation. He was cleared of theft and money laundering charges. The total sum on the indictment had risen to a staggering €55 million. The guilty charges totalled €1.7 million. Of which, €1.1million was struck out of the subsequent proceeds of crime (POCA) proceedings.

He was sentenced to 7 years in prison, released on licence in January, 2018 and allowed to return to his home in Crete. A dispute over a 28 day recall to prison over alleged licence breach remains extant (read more here).

In October, 2013, the Greek criminal trial had taken place in the island’s picturesque court house in Chania. Ralph Christie was acquitted before a panel of the three top judges within the jurisdiction. A certified translation of the court’s judgment can be read here.

The allegations made there were much the same as WYP relied upon at Bradford. Two of the three prosecution witnesses did not turn up to the Crete trial, Stephen Thomas and Susan Watt. Thomas did not appear at Bradford as either co-defendant (it was proved at the Crete trial that he was a business partner of Ralph Christie) or witness for the prosecution. Despite having been the original and main complainant in the case for a number of years.

Mrs Watt did give evidence and her version of matters relating to eight of the counts on the indictment and large sums of money laundering, in the region of €12 million, was not believed by the jury.

A more complete background to those two trials can be found here.

Since September last year, the pace of the Ralph Christie innocence bid has quickened. He has a trainee lawyer, based in Copenhagen, working hard on formulating the grounds for a permission appeal to the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. It is hoped that funds can be raised to re-engage Nick Vamos, a partner with leading law firm, Peters and Peters, in London.

The first hurdle to overcome is the time elapsed between the conviction and the submission of then contemplated appeal. This is likely to be in excess of six years and the court needs compelling grounds to overlook such a delay. If the law lords are unpersuaded, the only open route to justice remaining is via an application to the Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) where the hurdles to be overcome are persuading the criminal justice ‘watchdog’ that there is new evidence or fresh legal argument available sufficiently persuasive for them to refer the matter back to the appeal court.

Currently, applications of any complexity are taking between five and ten years to finalise. Frequently requiring second and third applications to be made to the CCRC before they can finally be persuaded as to merits.

Issues relating to the role of Susan Watt, and more recent revelations involving her and her husband, are fully ventilated in a linked and very recent article published elsewhere on this website (read in full here). Her motives and integrity, that bear heavily on the Ralph Christie innocence claim, are again called into serious question.

The role of Cedric Christie remains an enigma. From the biggest, and much the most visible, and active, supporter of the alleged miscarriages of justice relating to his elder brother, he turned against him in 2013, less than six months after the PCC campaign ended. He was the only family member, and amongst a large group of friends, who was not jubilant at the conclusion of the Greek trial later that year. His flawed investigation in Crete in 2014, believed to be in conjunction with, or at the coercion of, his former West Yorkshire Police colleagues, led to a further fourteen counts being added to the indictment at Bradford Crown Court, only two of which succeeded. Both being central to the present innocence claim. Cedric refuses to disclose his investigation report, or details of his communications with the police, that would be central to that claim succeeding.

One very positive aspect of the campaign is a repetition of the support given to Ralph Christie by Howard Tenens Ltd. A large logistics firm in the UK and investor in his Crete ventures, the count upon which he was found guilty at Bradford relating to them was the most expensive, both in money terms and in the length of prison sentence. In an email from Vice Chairman, Daniel Morris, in January 2019, and from retired Property and Building Director, Pat Brownett, earlier this year that they confirm the view that they regard Christie as innocent of the criminal count involving their company.

Although his sentence ends and his conviction, in theory, becomes spent on 5th July, 2021, Ralph Christie remains on 28 day recall from prison. At present he is unable to return to the UK without facing the prospect of arrest on arrival at the inbound port. His innocence campaign is, for the moment at least, conducted from Crete.

A further article, which will set out the contemplated grounds of appeal against the five convictions is scheduled for early July, 2021.

Page last updated on Thursday 3rd June, 2021 at 1620 hrs.

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

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© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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