A mysterious assault.
An unsolved murder.
And a ship that hasn’t given up all its secrets
By Kit Chellel and Matthew Campbell
July 27, 2017
Nestor Tabares must have known the hijackers were out there, waiting. It was his 13th day at sea aboard the oil tanker Brillante Virtuoso, and as the ship turned east, into the pirate-strewn waters off Somalia, the 54-year-old chief engineer would have understood that it made for an obvious target. With a top speed of less than 13 knots and stretching 300 yards from bow to rusting stern, the black-hulled Brillante was plodding into the world’s most dangerous shipping lane with a cargo worth $100 million.
It was July 2011, and the threat of Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden had never been more severe. The Brillante’s crew of 26 Filipinos, including Tabares and the ship’s captain, Noe Gonzaga, 57, set up the standard deterrents. Around the deck’s perimeter they fitted coils of razor wire, aimed eight high-pressure hoses for blasting attackers off the hull, and propped up a scarecrow in overalls, to suggest the presence of a watchman. Deep inside the tanker, they stocked a mechanical space with food, water, radios, and medical supplies—a panic room in the event pirates did come aboard. Most of the crew had faith that would never happen. They knew the ship’s owner, a company called Suez Fortune Investments Ltd., had arranged for a small security team to rendezvous off the Yemeni port of Aden, as an escort through the most dangerous part of their journey.
On the evening of July 5, Gonzaga ordered the crew to cut the engine and drift while they awaited the guards’ arrival the next morning. They were 12 nautical miles off the Yemeni coast. It was calm, partly cloudy, and silent, apart from the hum of generators and the sloshing of breakers.
A 40-year-old able seaman named Allan Marquez stayed up to keep watch on the bridge. Just before midnight, he saw a blip on the port-side radar, approaching fast. He reached for a pair of binoculars. A motorboat was moving in the moonlight. As it came closer, Marquez could make out seven people—six of them in desert-style camouflage, holding what looked like rifles. His superior on the watch, Second Officer Roberto Artezuela, rang Gonzaga in his cabin, and Marquez made his way to the deck.
“Who are you?” Marquez yelled down to the boat, trying to sound friendly. One of the men produced a megaphone. He said they were the security team, members of the crew would later recount, and asked to board. Marquez didn’t know what to do. Something seemed off. This was too many men, at the wrong time, and one wasn’t even wearing shoes. Letting armed strangers onto the ship went against every antipiracy protocol. Marquez radioed up for instructions. After a few minutes an order came back: Lower a ladder.
Six men climbed up. They had light brown skin and wore red-and-white keffiyehs and blue hospital masks. Their rifles looked like Kalashnikovs, and they carried black pistols in holsters on their thighs. When Marquez asked for ID, they refused, seized his radio, and demanded to be taken to the captain.
Gonzaga was still in his stateroom when Marquez appeared at his door, trailed by one of the armed visitors. “Gather all of the crew in the television room,” the gunman said. Marquez went cabin to cabin, rousing sleepy crewmates. After all 26 were assembled in the small TV room, now fully aware that they’d lost control of their ship, the six gunmen split up. Two took Gonzaga to the bridge, two marched Tabares to the engine room, and two stood sentry outside.
For a long time, the 24 sailors remaining in the TV room sat there, wondering what was happening to their captain and chief engineer, until a clatter of gunshots suggested the worst. They dared not open the door. At one point, the Brillante’s engine roared to life; the ship was moving, but no one knew where. Suddenly, at around 3 a.m., an explosion sounded within the tanker, knocking out the electricity and setting off alarms. Fearful of their guards, the crew waited in place—but when smoke began to fill the room, a few crept out and discovered that the intruders had fled.
A clatter of gunshots suggested the worst
The Brillante was built like two rectangles joined at a right angle: one vast, flat, hollow shape that held the liquid cargo, and one smaller, upright stack that contained mechanical systems and crew spaces. The fire was underneath them, and rising. Guided by dim emergency lights, Marquez and several other crewmen rushed to the top of the block, where they found Gonzaga on the bridge, alone and unharmed, bound by plastic ties. They sliced him free. As smoke poured out of the tanker’s funnels, sailors made a distress call that was picked up by the USS Philippine Sea, a guided-missile cruiser on pirate patrol nearby. Gonzaga gave the order: Prepare to abandon ship.
On deck, the crew counted off. Twenty-five men—all but Tabares. Panic set in. The fire had reached their level, and they could hear loud, ominous cracks from metal buckling in the heat. Inside the Brillante, the temperature in some rooms was approaching the melting point of copper, testing the fireproofing that for now kept 141,000 metric tons of oil from igniting. A search party went back for Tabares, but the smoke was too thick. At 4 a.m. the crew gave up and took to the gulf in a large, orange lifeboat. As they did, the thrum of rotor chop beat down from above—it was a U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter, launched by the approaching Philippine Sea. From the air, the American crew saw fireballs rising from the stricken tanker and felt the percussive boom of explosions within. They trained infrared cameras on the hull seeking signs that the oil—four times the volume of the Exxon Valdez spill—would pour into the water. When the Philippine Sea was close enough, it sent two inflatable boats to collect the rejoicing Filipinos.
Then, at 5 a.m., the helicopter crew saw movement on deck—Tabares was alive, waving a flashlight. The flames were too intense for an aerial rescue. He leapt into the sea. Seeing a Navy boat, he reached out with both hands and was pulled to safety.
Aboard the cruiser, Gonzaga began to tell the Americans what had happened while he’d been separated from the crew. The hijackers, he said, ordered him to turn over $100,000 and sail for Somalia; they’d fired their weapons at the ship’s safe when he was slow to open it. He couldn’t say what caused the explosion. When Tabares arrived to share his tale, he said he’d managed to disable the Brillante’s engines when his captors weren’t looking, then escaped, hiding for so long that he missed the evacuation.
The Philippine Sea searched for fleeing pirates, but the motorboat was long gone. Sunrise turned the sky gray and then powdery blue. A tugboat arrived from Aden and pumped seawater onto the Brillante, taming the fire until the dead tanker drifted serenely in the morning light, low in the water, trailing a thick column of smoke.
Barely seven hours had passed since the gunmen had taken the ship. But already an international cast was activating: salvors from the region’s cutthroat ports, to scavenge millions from the wreckage; U.S. military investigators, to determine if Somali pirates had adopted brutal new tactics; and most urgently of all, an operative from the stony world of London insurance, to discover what really happened aboard his clients’ $100 million liability. Because if the hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso wasn’t a case of fumbled piracy, it would be the most spectacular fraud in shipping history.
The events of July 6, 2011, set in motion a tangle of lawsuits and criminal investigations that are still nowhere near conclusion. Six years after it was abandoned, the Brillante Virtuoso is an epithet among shipping veterans, one that reveals their industry’s capacity for lawlessness, financial complexity, and violence. This account is based on court evidence, private and government records, and more than 60 interviews with people involved, almost all of whom asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivities of nine-figure litigation and, in some cases, concern for their own safety. Everyone at sea that night survived. But the danger was just getting started.
Anytime a commercial vessel is lost, the incident is recorded with a quill pen in a leatherbound book at Lloyd’s, a London institution that blends age-old ritual with modern finance. Contrary to common belief, Lloyd’s isn’t an insurer, or even a company in the usual sense of the word. Since its origins in a 17th century coffeehouse popular with traders who funded sea voyages, Lloyd’s has evolved into something like a stock exchange for risk, where actual insurers come to buy and sell exposure. These companies form syndicates and get insurance of their own from even larger re-insurers, who are re-re-insured in turn. These layers constitute one of the world’s most essential and least understood markets, where premiums alone generate about $40 billion a year. Anything that might be lost or cause a loss, from Bruce Springsteen’s voice to a Virgin Galactic spacecraft, can be insured via Lloyd’s, but shipping remains at its core. Some 80 to 100 major vessels are lost each year, and the Brillante was one of the largest of 2011.
After a shipwreck, insurers and insured alike have an interest in preserving as much value as possible, so they turn to salvage. Under Lloyd’s rules, salvors are entitled to a percentage of anything they save from destruction, and it’s widely assumed that some shipowners steer business to favored companies in return for a cut of their compensation. Just minutes after the Brillante’s distress signal went out, the tanker’s owner, Suez Fortune, contacted a company named Poseidon Salvage International, which got two of its boats in Aden to the scene by 7 a.m.
Four days later, Suez’s owner, a Greek named Marios Iliopoulos, flew to Aden—a chaotic city on the verge of revolution. He secured the Brillante’s crew in a hotel and gave each sailor $200 for new clothes. On a rather larger scale, Iliopoulos also prepared to submit a claim for his ruined tanker. But before the insurers would pay, they would want a better understanding of the hijacking. And for that, they would need David Mockett.
Every port, no matter how remote, has a small corps of marine surveyors, without whom Lloyd’s and global shipping would cease to function. Surveyors are hired to establish the facts of incidents from routine collisions to deadly storms; their assessments often make the difference between payment or denial of a claim. Many are former captains, who develop the skills of private investigators and execute them in perilous situations. Mockett was the top surveyor in Aden.
Born in 1946, Mockett grew up poor in a small town near the English port of Plymouth. Looking for a ticket out, he signed up with a merchant shipping line, and in the 1970s he joined a flood of Westerners seeking better prospects in booming Saudi Arabia. He lived mostly apart from his wife and two daughters, whom he regularly visited at home in England. Few outsiders take to the strictures of life in an Islamic theocracy, but Mockett found his pleasures, scuba diving to Red Sea coral reefs. In 1998 he moved to Yemen.
Compared with orderly Saudi Arabia, Yemen was like another planet—the poorest country in the Middle East, riven by sectarian conflict, with huge ungovernable areas. Men carried Kalashnikovs as standard accessories, as well as jambiyas, curved daggers with ornate handles. Mockett, with his ruddy face and thunderous laugh, was hardly inconspicuous. Locals joked that he was the tallest man in Yemen, with hands that a colleague described as like “giant plates of meat.” He soon learned how dangerous his new home could be, when al-Qaeda suicide bombers in the port of Aden killed 17 U.S. sailors aboard the USS Cole. One day the next year, getting out of a car at his office, Mockett heard a pop and felt a sharp pain. He’d been shot at, and a bullet had ricocheted off a vehicle behind him and gone clean through his neck. “Being a good surveyor,” he later joked, “I made sure I got the bullet.” He never found out why he’d been targeted.
A significant portion of the world’s maritime trade passes within a short distance of Aden’s harbor, so the city offered plenty of work for an able surveyor willing to put up with its harder edges. Mockett found ways to soften them. He became a regular at the sole Chinese restaurant, Ching Sing, which served foul Eritrean gin and whiskey in defiance of the virtual prohibition on alcohol. And he developed a certain rapport with the locals. Driving along the coast with a friend in 2008, he pulled over to photograph the ocean. A beat-up car stopped alongside, and three men stepped out.
“Are you American?” they asked. Mockett indicated that he was British. The men shook hands, but that turned out to be all the English they knew. Mockett’s companion pointed at the pistol one Yemeni wore on his belt, and then to the small, round scar on Mockett’s neck. The Yemeni lifted up his robe to go one better: A large chunk of his leg was missing. Soon they were posing for pictures and joking with the Kalashnikov that the Yemenis, inevitably, were carrying in the trunk of their car.
When the Arab Spring spread to Yemen in early 2011, friends urged Mockett to leave, at least temporarily. He refused, arguing that people back home were overreacting to the images of turmoil on TV. Yemen was safe, he said, as long as you stayed out of trouble.
When Mockett got the Brillante assignment later that year, Poseidon’s head salvor, a gnarled Greek diving expert named Vassilios Vergos, refused to give him access to the wreck for almost a week—an unusual and unexplained delay. Finally, Mockett chartered a fishing trawler to get to the tanker, where Vergos insisted on accompanying him on his rounds.
The ship, groaning in heavy seas, had a deceptive appearance—the exterior was largely intact, while the mechanical and crew sections within were a total ruin. As Mockett began exploring, his boots splashed through deep puddles of oily seawater left behind by three days of firefighting. Inside the accommodation block, the beam from his flashlight swung left and right, illuminating blackened metal contorted by heat and crusted with soot. Every few steps, he paused to take photos. The engine room, near where the fire had begun, was half-flooded, with ladders that descended into inky sludge. It was too dangerous to go deeper.
Mockett spent the night on the trawler. On his way back to Aden, he contemplated the strangeness of what he’d seen. As a rule, pirates don’t set fire to valuable ships—they hijack them and hold their crews and cargo for ransom. Nor do they abandon vessels after doing the difficult work of getting on board and taking control.
Over the next several days, Mockett expanded on his suspicions over tea in his office with friends, paging through hundreds of photos on his laptop. He had a reputation as a careful, by-the-book surveyor, hesitant about inference or speculation. “Evidence, dear boy, evidence,” was one of his stock phrases. The Brillante evidence didn’t add up. There was no sign that the attackers had used rocket-propelled grenades—one of the few pirate tactics he could think of that could realistically cause an explosion and fire. And when Mockett reviewed accounts given by the crew, he found them bizarre. It was hard to believe an experienced captain would invite armed men onto his ship in the middle of the night, in the world’s most dangerous waterway, if there was any question about their identity. The entire rendezvous was suspicious: The Gulf of Aden is an area to accelerate through, not dawdle in.
A world away at Lloyd’s, tens of millions of dollars in insurance payouts hinged on Mockett’s findings. As he prepared his report, he shared his misgivings with some of the other shipping hands—some local, some from overseas—assembling around the tanker, including one hired to offload its oil. On July 19, Mockett emailed the man to say he’d begun to suspect that the supposed Somali pirates were neither Somali nor pirates, but rather rogue elements of the Yemeni coast guard or navy. He promised to explain more soon.
The next day, at about 1 p.m., Mockett took his laptop, left his office, and climbed into his Lexus SUV. He made the short drive to his small house in a neighboring district every day for lunch. On the corner was a store selling sweets; it would normally be crowded with children, but that afternoon it was empty.
Mockett had driven a short distance onto Ma′alla, Aden’s main street, when the bomb that had been carefully placed under his seat detonated. The blast was focused and powerful, loud enough to be heard blocks away. It killed Mockett instantly, almost blowing his door off its hinges. As the car burned, belching smoke into the hazy sky, a crowd of locals in traditional white caps pushed toward the flames, shouting. Mockett’s body lay on the street next to the broken door, one arm extended, bent at the wrist, as if reaching for the gearstick.
The murder was shocking even in a city accustomed to bombings. A small crowd held a procession a few days later, carrying placards bearing Mockett’s photo and chanting, “God be merciful, God receive him.” The Yemeni Ministry of the Interior ordered an investigation, and local police asked one of Mockett’s closest friends in Aden, a fellow Brit named Roy Facey, to write a report. Facey’s contacts in the area warned him not to include anything too inflammatory. In the document, which he submitted on July 23, Facey described discussing the Brillante with Mockett just before he died and hearing him dismiss the story of Somali pirates.
Facey suspected Mockett had been killed because of what he’d learned—and he now possessed the same dangerous knowledge. On July 25, Facey was awakened at 1:30 a.m. by a call from the British embassy in Sana′a, the capital. A woman told him his life was in danger. She wouldn’t describe the threat or how the embassy knew about it, only saying he should hide until someone could retrieve him—and then leave the country immediately.
Facey locked himself inside his apartment for more than 36 hours. Late in the afternoon on July 26, kids playing on the street outside stopped to stare as two shiny 4x4s rolled up. A group of burly men with American accents emerged, wearing civilian clothes and pistols on their belts. They bundled Facey into one of the vehicles, eventually depositing him at the airport. The men didn’t identify themselves, but Facey thought he knew who they were. U.S. special forces were active throughout southern Yemen at the time, coordinating drone strikes and commando raids on al-Qaeda-linked militants. Facey flew out of Aden without ever learning who wanted him dead. (He declined to comment.)
Another British citizen soon arrived to investigate Mockett’s murder. Jonathan Tottman, a detective seconded to the British foreign service from London’s Metropolitan Police, looked less like a cop than a diplomat, partial to elegant suits. But he had a broad record investigating corruption, terrorism, even soccer hooliganism, and ample experience in the Middle East. He’d need it. The rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s authoritarian president, seemed like it was about to collapse, and the country was tearing itself apart. A suicide bomber killed nine soldiers at an army checkpoint just before Tottman landed, and he could move around the city only with a phalanx of heavily armed Yemeni guards.
“It’s not for the salvor to play Sherlock Holmes”
There wasn’t much to investigate. The authorities had cleared the site of the car bomb almost immediately, collecting little evidence; Mockett’s laptop disappeared into police custody. Al-Qaeda had menaced Westerners across Yemen, but Tottman and others believed the murder was extremely unlikely to have been an act of terror. No militant group claimed credit for killing Mockett, and the blast had been relatively small, injuring no one else on a busy street.
In the weeks after the bombing, another of Mockett’s longtime friends asked a Pakistani surveyor in Aden to see what he could find out about the Brillante. The Pakistani was soon arrested. Yemeni officials took his passport and detained him for five days in a shabby building near the harbor, locking him in a small room with only a bucket for drinking water. After his release, the man fled the country, and Mockett’s friend took the incident as a warning to stop asking questions.
Ultimately, too much money and too many actors were involved for the Brillante’s ruin to go unexamined. Other inquiries continued. The U.S. Navy wrote up skeptical reports, based on the efforts of the Philippine Sea. One summary noted that pirates typically start fires to lure crew out of a fortified hold, yet on the Brillante the hijackers had control of everyone on board. “Highly suspicious that pirates would even try to attack a ship so late at night with very little illumination,” the document continued. Navy personnel also noted that, curiously, Gonzaga and Tabares had requested to board one of Poseidon’s tugs almost immediately after being rescued. They did so, then refused officers’ requests to return to the Philippine Sea for more interviews.
Pirates in the Gulf of Aden are generally dark-skinned Somalis who speak the distinctive language of that country. But the Brillante’s crew told Navy investigators that almost all the gunmen had lighter skin and spoke “an unidentified form of Arabic.” And the tanker’s black-box-style data recorder indicated that the vessel had traveled west during the incursion, when Somalia was due south. True Somali pirates, seamen of the hardest kind, would have noticed.
By late August, what remained of the Brillante was anchored in safe waters off the United Arab Emirates, towed there by another Greek-run company, Five Oceans Salvage, that had partnered with Poseidon. With the tanker finally secure, its decks bustled with small teams of inspectors taking measurements and photos. Among them were agents from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service; if pirates were getting in the habit of burning commercial ships, the Navy wanted to know about it. They were joined by fire and explosives experts, people hired by the companies that owned the ship and cargo, and the insurers of both. Previously, a surveyor hired by Suez Fortune had argued the fire was caused by an errant pirate grenade. Now one of the explosives experts entered a space adjacent to the engine room, which had been drained and looked like the inside of a barbecue, and spotted an unmistakable bulge in a metal plate on the floor. It could only have been left by a bomb, he thought—something focused and powerful.
Scuttling or damaging a ship for the insurance money is, in some respects, an ideal crime: There might be no witnesses, no evidence, and no law enforcement. The odds of getting away with it are good. Even when an accident has the odor of foul play, Lloyd’s insurers almost always pay something. The unwritten law of maritime insurance is to avoid the unpleasantness of customer conflict and keep the premiums rolling in.
But if the Brillante wasn’t a genuine hijacking—if it was an inside job, with a coverup that extended to murder—then it had no precedent in scale or theatricality. Fifteen months after the attack, a second Brit in Aden died in mysterious circumstances. Roger Stokes, a soft-spoken lawyer and friend of Mockett’s, had tried to collect an unpaid Brillante fuel bill. On Oct. 7, 2012, his driver found him in his apartment, bleeding severely from a head wound. He expired on the way to a hospital. Stokes’s family believed his death was accidental. But in shipping circles, Stokes belongs on the list of those who have dealt with the Brillante and then found their life in danger.
In London, four months later, two groups of insurers were facing major Brillante claims and needed to decide whether to fight or write checks. The first claim concerned the oil cargo. The lead salvor, Five Oceans, was asking for about $30 million from a group of three underwriters—Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group, Zurich Insurance Group, and Allianz—as a reward for saving the payload. The second claim involved the Brillante itself. Suez, the owner, wanted ultimately to recover about $100 million, covering the hull, machinery, and forgone profits, plus interest, from a group of 10 companies led by Talbot Underwriting Ltd.
In February 2013, about 30 people gathered to discuss the case on the 11th floor of Lloyd’s headquarters, a landmark of modern architecture—an eruption of exposed steel gantries, undulating staircases, and ventilation pipes rising from the heart of the City, London’s financial district. Around a large table sat representatives of both insurance groups, their lawyers, and four police detectives who’d been invited to attend.
The cargo insurers were reluctant to pay, they explained, adding that if the City of London Police intervened, they might be able to delay a decision. More time would be useful for their private investigators, who were still tracking down witnesses. But a representative from Royal & Sun, which had recently fought a nasty legal battle with a different Greek shipowner, expressed fears that the company could get a reputation for hostility if it faced off against another client. A few weeks after the meeting, the cargo insurers folded, paying out the $30 million to the salvors. (The insurers declined to comment.)
The Talbot syndicate took a more aggressive approach, denying Suez’s claim for the ship. Suez sued in response. To prepare for trial, the insurers sent investigators to the Middle East, to dig into the attack and salvage, and to Greece, to find out more about Suez’s owner, Marios Iliopoulos.
The investigators learned that one of Iliopoulos’s ships had been in trouble off the coast of Aden before. On May 26, 2009, a fire broke out in the radio room of a 90,000-ton oil tanker called the Elli. While the crew fought the blaze, the ship ran aground on a sand bank. Tugs pulled it clear, but three months later the Elli suffered an unexplained accident in the calm waters around the Suez Canal, splitting in half like a watermelon. The resulting claim, for about $35 million, was disputed by the ship’s insurers and ended up in litigation; the parties settled before trial.
The Elli’s chief engineer on the day of the fire was Nestor Tabares. Two salvage companies responded to its accidents. When the ship ran aground, Poseidon was first on the scene. And when it later broke in two, Five Oceans attended to the wreck.
Poseidon’s manager, Vergos, didn’t respond to more than half a dozen calls and emails to the company’s Greek office requesting comment. Five Oceans Managing Director Nikolaos Pappas said in an interview that his company’s only role in the Brillante case was to secure the ship, and that he’s unable to comment on the attack or what happened to the Elli. “It’s not for the salvor,” he said, “to play Sherlock Holmes.”
Marios Iliopoulos had kept his name out of the Elli litigation. He’d owned the tanker—as he did the Brillante—through a web of anonymous offshore companies. He’s probably 50 years old, is based near Athens, and controls one of the city’s fast-ferry services to Mykonos. In Greek media reports, Iliopoulos is known as “Super Mario” for his skill at rally-racing, a sport that involves hurling supercharged production cars along dirt tracks and mountain roads. It’s a pursuit defined by scenic locations, crowds of passionate fans, and fearless drivers, who risk a one-way trip off a cliff if they lose control.
Although trade publications indicate that Iliopoulos has owned as many as eight large ships at once, he was for years virtually unknown to his insurers, even as his vessels sometimes came to tragic ends. In 1994, the Iron Antonis, an aging freighter Iliopoulos owned with his two brothers, was due to be scrapped. The brothers sent it on one last journey, hauling ore from Brazil to China. It sank in a storm 2,000 miles west of Cape Town, one of the most remote places on the planet, killing all 24 of its sailors. Greek authorities charged the Iliopouloses with causing the deaths by negligence. Marios and Ioannis Iliopoulos were cleared, but their brother, Antonis, was convicted in 2001; the case was dropped on appeal.
In 2015, after more than two years of preparation, the Talbot insurance syndicate accused Iliopoulos of orchestrating the assault on the Brillante Virtuoso. “There was no attack by Somali pirates,” they said in documents filed in a London court. “Any such attack on the Vessel was staged,” they continued, “with the involvement and connivance of the Owner” and members of the crew—specifically, Captain Gonzaga, Second Officer Artezuela, and Chief Engineer Tabares. The insurers claimed the fire was strategic: started by a bomb in a chosen location, stoked by an accelerant and open airways, and intended to cripple the ship.
Talbot seized on inconsistencies in the sailors’ statements. According to U.S. Navy chat transcripts, the first account of the incident by a third party, the crew initially said the attackers had posed as their security team. Yet in subsequent statements—given in Aden, after Iliopoulos had arrived, as well as in Manila—the story changed. Gonzaga, Tabares, and Marquez, the sailor who let the men aboard, all said instead that the gunmen had claimed to be from “the authorities.” The revised account would seem to resolve a key logical flaw: How could Somali pirates have known the tanker was expecting an escort?
Seeking to establish a motive, the insurers said that Iliopoulos was deeply in debt, having borrowed $60 million or more to buy his ships, and that the Brillante was hemorrhaging money, in the red by about $4 million in the first six months of 2011. Talbot alleged that as his finances deteriorated, Iliopoulos began to plan the destruction of the Brillante. Iliopoulos responded by accusing the insurers of “unfairly and irresponsibly endangering my reputation.” He denied the “unfounded and wrongful allegations,” adding in a court statement: “I am a respectable businessman, welcomed by such individuals as the Archbishop of Athens and the Vice-President of Greece.”
In April 2016, Iliopoulos was summoned to a London courtroom to answer questions about an important pretrial issue: Electronic records from a company managing the Brillante appeared to have gone missing. The court was brightly lit, and lawyers for both sides lined up at long tables as Iliopoulos took the stand. With a scruffy beard, oily hair, and an untucked shirt that struggled to contain his ample figure, he looked an unlikely shipping tycoon. He spoke in Greek, through an interpreter. Accused of deliberately withholding the emails, Iliopoulos jabbed his finger in the air. He thumped the table and glowered across the courtroom at his opponents, ignoring questions and accusing them of having “committed crimes” in the course of their investigations in Greece. Judge Julian Flaux warned him to stop being evasive.
Iliopoulos stared back. Those allegations, he said, might draw “consequences”
As the hearing stretched into a second day, an older woman with short, gray hair was watching from a chair in the back of the courtroom. It was David Mockett’s widow, Cynthia. She looked on as Talbot’s lawyer, Jonathan Gaisman, told the judge that someone had hacked into the emails of a Greek lawyer hired by the insurers. Those messages, he said, found their way to Iliopoulos. Turning to the shipowner, Gaisman accused him of ordering the hack.
Iliopoulos responded quietly. Staring at Gaisman, he told the lawyer that those allegations might draw “consequences.” Judge Flaux, a small man with thick glasses and a reputation for toughness, had heard enough. “You will not use this courtroom to threaten counsel or English lawyers,” he shouted down from the bench. “You will behave yourself!” When Iliopoulos left the stand, he apologized to Flaux, saying he was an emotional man trying to protect his reputation.
Iliopoulos strolled downstairs toward the lobby. There, waiting in the space between a set of metal detectors and the building’s glass doors, were four uniformed officers from the City of London Police. The tallest one spoke. “Mr. Iliopoulos, I’m arresting you for conspiracy to commit fraud,” he said, taking him by one arm. Eyes widening with surprise, Iliopoulos said nothing as the officers hustled him into an unmarked blue sedan. Iliopoulos was questioned for hours at a nearby police station before being released without charge.
The investigation into his involvement with the Brillante continues, according to people familiar with the probe, though its scope is narrow. Officers are focused on determining whether the insurance claim was fraudulent, which could carry a penalty of as many as eight years in prison.
Iliopoulos never received his $100 million. Judge Flaux denied his claim after the witness box confrontation, writing in a 2016 judgment: “Mr. Iliopoulos clearly lost his temper and effectively threatened the insurers and their legal representatives from the witness box in a disgraceful manner. … With this intemperate and menacing evidence, Mr. Iliopoulos lost any remaining shred of credibility.”
The underlying lawsuit, though, limps on: A bank that originally lent his companies money is entitled to continue it. Talbot has submitted evidence of what it says is yet more suspicious Brillante activity—a conspiracy to mislabel its oil to avoid tax.
In 2011, when Tottman, the London detective, returned from investigating Mockett’s death in Aden, he was immediately summoned to brief the British government in Westminster. Officials asked who’d set the bomb: Criminals? The government? Terrorists? In Yemen, Tottman said, it could be all three at the same time. In an interview, Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013, agreed with that assessment. “Corruption was endemic in the military and the civil government,” he said. Strapped for cash, the Yemeni navy was also hiring its ships and men out for private security jobs in the Gulf of Aden, Feierstein added. “It was a time of complete political chaos.”
It’s only gotten worse. Yemen is in a state of near-anarchy, and building a murder case would be impossible for even a committed team of detectives. British police aren’t investigating Mockett’s death. Apparently, no government agency is. The only formal inquiry into his murder was held by a local coroner in Plymouth, Mockett’s hometown, in 2012; it recorded a verdict of “unlawful killing,” without identifying suspects. (Cynthia Mockett declined to comment.)
The investigation into the Brillante has its limits as well. As of July 19, 2017, City of London police hadn’t yet spoken to Allan Marquez—the man who first spotted the Brillante’s attackers and helped them aboard. That night, on the eve of the six-year anniversary of Mockett’s killing, a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter reached Marquez on a ship that was just entering a French port. His words came pouring out in rapid English, his second language. He’d been waiting a long time, he said, to tell his story.
Marquez alleged that after the attack, Iliopoulos sought him out at his hotel in Aden and threatened him. The shipowner wanted him to alter or omit parts of his account of the hijacking when giving statements to investigators, Marquez said. He added that Tabares confronted him, too, at a hotel in Manila weeks later.
Marquez elaborated over multiple phone calls, online chats, and an in-person interview in his native Tagalog. To explain his reasons for going public, he wrote at one point that he was no longer afraid of “both of them,” meaning Iliopoulos and Tabares. Now, he wrote, “im afraid to god. How long I can hide the truth in my conscience.” Before signing off, he wrote, “I hope that justice must prevailed.”
Iliopoulos didn’t respond to multiple, sustained interview requests sent via his London lawyer and his secretary or to emails and faxes. A letter brought by courier to his office in Piraeus, Greece, was refused. Suez didn’t respond to a letter sent to its registered address in the Marshall Islands. Tabares didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither did Gonzaga or multiple members of the Brillante crew.
The Brillante Virtuoso’s final destination was Gadani Beach, a shipbreaking yard on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. The ship was hauled onto the sand, stripped of anything of value, and torn apart, piece by piece, by workers who make a few dollars a day.
Iliopoulos continues to be active in Greece. Local newspapers reported earlier this year that he was bidding for a stake in Hellenic Seaways, a major ferry company. Meanwhile, it’s likely that he has at least one more major vessel at sea. Atop Gonzaga’s Facebook page is a photo of another tanker, the Despina Andrianna. That ship’s registered owner, according to maritime databases, is an obscure company with an address opposite the ferry terminal in Piraeus. Iliopoulos has testified that the same address is his own. At press time, the Despina Andrianna was moored in Cuba, preparing to sail with an unknown number of souls.
Additional Reporting: Karl Lester Yap, Vivian Nereim, and Paul Tugwell
Editor: Nick Summers
Photo Editor: Jane Yeomans
Development: James Singleton
Map: Evan Applegate