Most of the stories from this chapter originally appeared in the Expat Chronicles article, South London Gangster in Colombia.
While in La Modelo, Christopher heard of another gringo locked up in Medellín’s Bellavista prison. He heard this mysterious foreigner was not American but European, and that he was a tough guy. He had been in knife fights. This piqued Christopher’s curiosity. Christopher became pen pals with John Rowley in 1986 and they continued their correspondence during Christopher’s entire sentence in La Modelo.
Christopher was released before Rowley was. In 1990, Rowley was transferred to the Espinal prison near Ibague. Espinal, in the department of Tolima, is closer to Bogotá. Christopher decided to make the trip to meet his old pen pal. He brought Eduardo, who was keen to meet any gringo who might be willing to participate in scams since Christopher respectfully withdrew.
Christopher put thought into what he would bring Rowley. He designed a gift basket fit for a gringo king. He filled it with fresh fruits the mess hall would never serve and other treats you cannot get in Colombian prison.
When they finally met, they exchanged pleasantries and Christopher presented the gift basket. Rowley had no interest in the food; he did not even go through it. He asked for the cocaine. Christopher slipped him the bag containing a few grams of pure coke from the street. Rowley immediately started vacuuming it up his nose. He snorted at least a half gram in just a moment. Christopher and Eduardo, two ex-cons from Colombian prison, were shocked. That was Christopher’s first impression of John Rowley.
Rowley was released in 1990 and found Christopher in Bogotá. They started partying and getting to know each other, and Christopher heard Rowley’s unbelievable story.
Rowley had been involved in the 1983 Brinks-Mat robbery near London’s Heathrow Airport, the biggest gold heist in British history. A team of six masked gunmen armed with sawed-off shotguns stormed a Brinks-secured vault. The team had inside information from one of the warehouse security guards. Rowley was one of the gunmen.
The team had been aiming for £3 million in cash. But while trying to gain access to the vault, they found pallets stacked with three tons of gold bullion worth £26 million (over $125 million in 2014). Rowley told Christopher it took them hours to load the gold into their vans. And it took several more hours to unload the vans. Watch this National Geographic segment on the robbery, a small episode of the long story that ensued:
Or watch a clip from Fool’s Gold, the British made-for-TV film about the Brinks-Mat heist, which stars Sean Bean as gang leader Micky McAvoy:
McAvoy was arrested and sentenced to 25 years. Also arrested were Brian Robinson and Brinks security guard Anthony Black. A scramble of double-cross and murder played out. Insiders were knocked off while the criminal establishment of London melted down and sold the gold.
Kenneth Noye was the gangster who ultimately disguised the gold’s origins and sold it off over many years. He grew rich until he was convicted of murder in 1996. City and private resources have been dispatched to recover whatever money it could before it was all in global tax havens.
From a 2000 BBC article recapping Brinks-Mat in all its glory:
Despite dogged police work spanning nearly two decades, it seems most of those involved have simply got away with it — and most of the gold will never be recovered… It is claimed in some quarters that anyone wearing gold jewellery bought in the UK after 1983, is probably wearing Brinks Mat.
Rowley did not hang around for the drama that followed the robbery. Three tons of gold and two boxes of diamonds are on the record as part of the loot. Not reported was a bag of Thomas Cook traveler’s checks Rowley kept. Rowley told Christopher he had received diamonds and a small cash payment before fleeing for Spain, then Bulgaria, and ultimately the Colombian islands of San Andrés.
Rowley lived a good life for a year in San Andrés spending the traveler’s checks. Rowley learned Spanish while travelling between San Andrés and Medellín, where he changed the checks for cash. Then he started working with fake checks, which eventually caught up with him. He was arrested in Medellín’s Rionegro airport — brand new at the time — on the same day President Virgilio Barco was passing through the airport, for which security was heightened. Rowley was sent to the Bellavista prison in Medellín.
Rowley in Bogotá
One day in Bogotá, Rowley found Christopher having lunch with his English institute boss. A surprised Christopher went along with the amazing lies Rowley spun. Christopher tried to sneak looks of warning to his boss, but the boss did not pick up Christopher’s subtleties. By the end of lunch Rowley had a job with the institute. A few days later he was living in the boss’ house.
Within a week Rowley had money for booze and coke. Christopher suspected Rowley was having sex with the institute manager’s wife. Uninterested in teaching English, things soured but Rowley collected enough money to start staying at hotels and brothels on credit.
The Bogotá community of conmen heard about Rowley from Eduardo. They needed a foreigner for their scams. Christopher was no longer willing to participate, but Rowley was clearly not interested in honest work. Before introducing Rowley to the conmen, Christopher refused to vouch for him. He even warned them to be careful. The Colombians scoffed at that — Bogotá’s best conmen being careful around a gringo.
Using fax machines was standard practice in the advanced economies of the world. But in 1991 they had just started to emerge in Colombia. Fax machines provided ample potential for scams, especially on banks. Rowley jumped at the opportunity to work with the Colombian conmen. However, Rowley started getting over on them as soon as he started working with them. Christopher is not sure what he was doing — asking for weekend loans he never paid back, passing off checks as collateral that he would never come back for, and not showing up for commitments. According to Christopher, Rowley was a fast talker who could manipulate people in both English and Spanish.
Christopher had been trying to keep Rowley from learning of the bar on Carrera 11 at Calle 91, the English teacher hangout. He did not want to be associated with the Englishman who would undoubtedly scam everybody. And given he was capable of scamming Colombian conmen, he would make quick work of gringo expats.
Rowley found out about the bar. One day he watched Christopher leave from around the corner. As soon as Christopher left, Rowley stormed the bar asking for Christopher. He introduced himself to the bar manager as Christopher’s partner, telling him they were supposed to meet just at that moment. The manager told Rowley that Christopher had just left. Rowley spun him a yarn, an unbelievable story convincing him to loan Rowley a few hundred dollars’ worth of Colombian pesos, leaving a check as collateral.
Christopher learned of this the next morning at the bar. The manager told him he met his “partner,” John. Christopher’s heart sank, but he did not tell the manager about Rowley. In the next days, Rowley came back for more, leaving more checks with the manager who was all too eager to sell him pesos for checks at a favorable exchange rate. The manager caught on to his mistake after a week or so, and started asking Christopher about Rowley. Christopher started distancing himself from Rowley.
Christopher swore Rowley off several times in the course of their friendship. But Rowley stayed in Christopher’s good graces by being unbelievably generous with what he stole. When he realized Christopher or Eduardo were growing sick of him, he would show up at the bar or dance club where their group was. Then he would lay down wads of Colombian pesos on the table and announce it was to be spent on any indulgence they might have: food, beer, whiskey, aguardiente, cocaine, marijuana, drinks for women, prostitutes, or whatever they desire. They enjoyed nights of excess and hedonism. In hindsight, Christopher realizes that these were calculated ploys for Rowley to stay in others’ good graces just to take advantage of them again. Even his partying was as calculated as his timed arrival at the gringo hangout.
While everything was calculated, the excess was not an act. Rowley spent weeks at a time living in brothels. One time Christopher saw him in bed with six women, with cigarettes, liquor, marijuana, cocaine, and crack on the table for all to help themselves to. Rowley would smoke crack for days without sleeping. His main vices were crack and prostitutes.
One day Eduardo told Christopher that the conmen community had enough of Rowley. He had burned enough members of this secret society that they wanted him dead. Eduardo and Christopher went looking for Rowley where they knew him to be hanging out. He was living around Calle 23 with Carrera 4. At the time this was a district of crack and underage prostitutes. The boardinghouses were the cheapest in the city. Rowley hung out every day in front of a tattoo parlor run by a Belgian, Danny Tattoo.
Eduardo and Christopher found Rowley there. He was in bad shape — broke, in poor health, and wearing shabby clothes. Eduardo and Christopher took him to a bar in the north of the city to have a few beers and aguardiente while they told him the bad news. They had ideas for him to skip town and avoid being killed, but the conversation did not get that far.
True to form, Rowley asked for cocaine. Christopher gave it to him. With each snort of coke and swallow of aguardiente, Rowley transformed into the smooth, confident guy Christopher had come to know. He no longer seemed sick and shivering, although still broke and wearing shabby clothes.
Newly invigorated, Rowley proposed a scam. He noted the British ambassador was traveling in China and asked Christopher to call the embassy. Posing as a British tourist, Christopher learned the name of the interim ambassador. Then Rowley called the Bogotá Royal, an upscale hotel on Calle 100, a short walk from where the British embassy was in 1991. Speaking in a posh, uptown-London accent, Rowley identified himself as the interim ambassador and explained that an important British businessman had been robbed at the airport. He had nothing and needed immediate accommodation at the embassy’s expense.
Rowley borrowed clothes from Christopher and took a taxi to the hotel. The hotel staff drooled over Rowley, intimidated by how he carried himself with an air of importance and urgency. And they tried to upsell him as much as possible since he was on the embassy’s tab. They put him into new clothes and a watch. They brought him room service and bottles of booze. Rowley arranged for cash advances, withdrawing sizable amounts at each shift change of the hotel cashier.
This fraud took place over the Christmas holiday, a notoriously slow time in Bogotá. So Rowley was able to milk the scam for over a week. He treated Christopher, Eduardo, and gringos from the English-teaching community to the usual excesses every night for what made a nice holiday for those far from family. Rowley sensed when the hotel started getting suspicious, and promptly disappeared.
The hotel game was up, but Christopher did not know that when Rowley invited him to party at a brothel. Christopher arrived and joined Rowley at a round booth with four or five girls. The girls were topless, making out and fondling each other. Each had a glass from the bottle of whiskey on the table and each helped herself to Rowley’s pile of cocaine.
Christopher started drinking too and a good time was being had by all. The tab grew as more whiskey was drank and cocaine snorted. Christopher drank himself incoherent. Rowley snuck off with girls here and there, night turned to dawn, dawn turned to sunup, and Christopher woke up in Rowley’s room. Rowley had left, telling the brothel management that Christopher would pay the tab, which had grown to 200,000 pesos (worth 2.6 million pesos in 2014, or $1290). Christopher called one of his English students and begged for a loan — an advance on classes — to pay the tab.
Christopher decided to distance himself from Rowley again. The next he heard of Rowley was that he was incarcerated in La Modelo. He was picked up on a Bogotá street, having lunch at a street-side cafe. The security manager of the Bogotá Royal just happened to be walking past when he recognized Rowley and called the police. Rowley spent six months in La Modelo.
The Fall of John Rowley
When Rowley got out, he came to Christopher. Christopher was angry about the brothel incident, but he still liked Rowley. They were both European criminals and drunks. They had a lot of fun together. So Christopher let Rowley stay with him for a few nights after getting out of prison.
One night they were drinking late when Christopher went to bed around 3 a.m. He woke up in the morning to find Rowley gone and his new Sony stereo and speakers missing. He was also missing his best clothes. On his calendar was a note that said something to the effect of: “Had to go, see you soon. Don’t worry about the money!”
Christopher swore Rowley off forever.
A few months later Christopher’s girlfriend, Cristina, ran into Rowley at a flea market. He ran his charms and she showed him the emeralds Christopher gave her to sell. Rowley lured her attention away and stole the emeralds.
Christopher was with Cristina in the city center the next time he saw Rowley, who had degenerated into a bona fide crackhead. He was unshaven and missing a tooth. He wore a suit jacket with no shirt underneath. His pants revealed his shins and were tied at the waist with a rope. His shoes were too small for his feet with no socks or laces. He begged Christopher for 500 pesos so he could get to the north of the city and rob. Cristina mentioned the emeralds and Christopher told him to fuck off.
The last Christopher heard of John Rowley came from a prison friend who was plugged into the Cartucho crack scene. Rowley had started robbing among that underworld and was soon wanted dead. He got it with a knife on some unknown night, on some unknown street, by some unknown killer.
Rowley was the best confidence man Christopher ever met, in Europe or Colombia. Everything was calculated and he was never off. He was always angling on how to take advantage of people. Christopher noticed that Rowley would drink while working on people. Christopher had learned that conmen do not drink when they are working a mark. They laugh and act drunk, but they dump their drinks under the table or dispose of them in some other way. Rowley would not stay sober. He would get drunk but never lose sight of his target. He could have made a fortune as a conman if he would have treated it as a profession. But more important to him were sex and drugs, and then ultimately just crack.
Christopher’s greatest memory of John Rowley was the Samantha Fox party, one of the nights Rowley was playing the big shot. Samantha Fox was a British pop singer on tour in Bogotá. Rowley managed to get invited to their concert after-party, and he brought enough pure cocaine to provide everybody in attendance. He ordered bottles of champagne as a complement. They were the center of attention among the gorgeous singer and her entourage of music industry professionals.