Crooked, ruthless and avaricious: how Van Hoogstraten built a fortune on terror

Businessman who would stop at nothing in his pursuit of money

He is the scourge of ramblers, a ruthless property baron who regards his tenants as "filth" and his women as chattels. Once described by a judge as a self-styled "emissary of Beelzebub", Nicholas van Hoogstraten, 57, inflicted terror on his tenants in the pursuit of an enormous fortune.

When rent was overdue or he wanted someone evicted, the "heavies" went in. In one case, he actually removed the roof from above a tenant's head, while in another, a sick tenant returned home from hospital to find the staircase to her flat had been ripped out.

Ten years ago, when a fire broke out at one of his properties in Hove, he described the five people who died in the blaze as "lowlife, drug dealers, drug takers and queers - scum".

In the 1960s, he was jailed for four years for his role in a hand grenade attack on a former business associate.

As one of Zimbabwe's biggest foreign landowners, Van Hoogstraten, 57, sought to curry favour with President Robert Mugabe in an attempt to protect his farming and mining interests. It failed; Mr Mugabe snubbed him and his extensive holdings did not escape a squatter invasion.

Van Hoogstraten is proud of his chauvinistic attitude to women. He boasted in an interview that his latest girlfriend, an 18-year-old from Botswana, "was given to me by her father" when she was 16. But earlier this year she walked out on him and complained to police of domestic violence.

More recently, he fought a protracted battle with ramblers - "the great unwashed," in his words - over a public footpath across his East Sussex estate where he is building an enormous £40m country home, Hamilton Palace. Van Hoogstraten blocked the footpath with a shed, barbed wire and old fridges, sparking 4,000 letters of protest.

Ruthless and violent

Van Hoogstraten, born in Shoreham, West Sussex, in 1945, is proud of his reputation, once boasting in a World in Action documentary: "I'm probably ruthless and I'm probably violent."

The extent of his ruthlessness was discovered by Mohammed Sabir Raja, 62, a property developer originally from Pakistan, whose decision to stand up to Van Hoogstraten cost him his life.

The pair, both property magnates, met at an auction in 1988. Van Hoogstraten's style is to buy property with sitting tenants then, as he puts it, "winkle them out" and sell on with vacant possession.

Mr Raja bought and rented out flats. He had more than 100 court findings against him for letting out property unfit for human habitation.

The Pakistani businessman borrowed money from Van Hoogstraten to invest in rental property, and was persuaded to sign blank property transfer forms. Van Hoogstraten then started collecting rents instead of Mr Raja. He filled in the blank transfer forms, and filed them with the Land Registry, transferring the titles. Mr Raja responded by launching a legal action. By the spring of 1999, he was alleging fraud.

Van Hoogstraten told police that the value of the business dealings was "peanuts" to him. But he undermined this apparent nonchalance when he admitted to the jury that despite his wealth he re mained driven by avarice: "Whatever money you have, it's never enough."

Officers who raided one of his homes discovered quite how parsimonious he was when they found teabags drying out on a draining board, ready to be recycled.

The litigation also had the potential to make his life very uncomfortable; the fraud allegation was reported to Sussex police and could have led to criminal charges if proved in the civil case.

Mr Raja's son Amjad recalled meeting Van Hoogstraten and discussing with him the fact that his father was a thorn in Van Hoogstraten's side. With relish, the tycoon replied: "I pull out thorns and I snap them."

On July 2 1999, Mr Raja was with his grandsons, teenagers at the time, at the family's £300,000 semi in the London borough of Sutton. At 10.15am, the grandsons heard a shot and rushed downstairs to find the front door open, and their grandfather clutching his chest and saying in Punjabi: "Hoogstraten's men have hit me".

Kneeling in the doorway was a man in a boiler suit, wearing glasses and a hat, reloading a single-barrelled shotgun. Another man stood next to him.

The man with the gun, police believe, was Robert Knapp, 55. His accomplice was David Croke, 59. Both were career armed robbers and heroin addicts who had recently been released from Long Lartin prison in Worcestershire, where they were on the same wing.

The first shot had missed. But Mr Raja had been stabbed five times in the chest with a kitchen knife and was fatally injured. Pursued by the gunman, the businessman stumbled into a TV room at the back of the house where he was shot in the head.

Police decided to withhold the fact that the first shot had missed and that Mr Raja had been stabbed when they released information about the murder, giving the cause of death simply as the gunshot wound to the head.

Early in the investigation, Van Hoogstraten was interviewed under caution. He told police the murder was nothing to do with him. He commented that the killers were "obviously a couple of amateurs, they must have been idiots because the first shot missed". This was in December 1999.

Among those expected to give evidence against Van Hoogstraten was his girlfriend, Tanika Sali, 18. In police interviews, she claimed that when she was introduced to Knapp by Van Hoogstraten, he whispered in her ear: "This is Bob: he's one of my hitmen."

After he was arrested, she asked him if he was responsible. He allegedly told her: "There are some things you best don't know for your own protection."

However, she refused to testify in court. She has now been reported to the attorney general after claiming her sworn statements to police were lies.

Another associate who was due to be a witness is Michaal Abu Hamdam, a Lebanese businessman and multimillionaire. Mr Abu Hamdam told police that in the summer of 1998 he was in Cannes with Van Hoogstraten, who allegedly asked if he knew somebody who could "get rid" of some people for him, one of whom was Mr Raja.

The businessman's evidence was also not heard. Police sources say Mr Abu Hamdam was too frightened to come to court. The judge ruled that his statement could not be read after Ms Sali, whose statements corroborated his fear of Van Hoogstraten, refused to give evidence.

According to Van Hoogstraten's rags-to-riches story, he founded his empire as a teenager, buying cheap property with the proceeds of selling his stamp collection. He also began acquiring a criminal record early in life: in March 1956 he was con victed of theft at Littlehampton juvenile court, aged 11.

The self-made man now faces self-destruction. His fortune appears to be crumbling. In 2001, he was rated 159th on the Sunday Times rich list with a valuation of £200m. This year, that figure was cut to £60m and his rating plummeted to 595th.

The decline was blamed on the volatile political and economic situation in Zimbabwe, and the compilers of the list believe his fortune may fall further.

Hamilton Palace is unlikely to be completed. Within it, the mausoleum he intended to last 5,000 years after his death remains unfinished. It may be a more fitting monument than he intended.

Van Hoogstraten's criminal career

1956, aged 11 Conditional discharge for theft of a typewriter from school

1960, aged 15 Two years' probation for being an accessory to burglary and for handling stolen goods

1966 Fined £2 for using obscene language to a police officer

1968 Jailed for four years for criminal damage and demanding money with menaces. He had arranged a hand-grenade attack on the home of a former business associate. It was alleged that the victim owed him £2,000. In a separate case, sentenced to three years for eight counts of handling stolen goods

1972 Accused of bribing a prison officer to get letters out of Wormwood Scrubs; 15-month sentence reduced on appeal four months later to allow his immediate release. In a separate case, fined for forceable entry and conspiracy to cause damage

1979 Fined £200 for assault causing actual bodily harm after punching and kicking a bailiff

1999 Fined £1,500 for contempt of court after threatening a barrister during a case brought by a group of flat-owners

July 2002 Convicted of manslaughter


Jeevan Vasagar

The GuardianTramp

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