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The Man from Basingstoke Who Tried to Kill Escobar, Twice

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When Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria died on a Medellin barrio rooftop in December 1993 following a shootout between him & his bodyguard
Alvaro de Jesus Agudelo (Aka El Limon) against the Colombian national police. It not only brought down the curtain on the worlds most powerful & feared drug trafficking group, The Medellin Cartel but also signalled an end to the biggest cross continent manhunt the world had ever seen pre Osama Bin Laden.

Wanted in equal measures by Washington on account of being directly responsible for 80% of cocaine that would enter the United States. And by the Colombian government for a rap sheet that ranged from drug trafficking to terrorism due to the campaign of chaos he along with the rest of the cartel orchestrated in the 80’s and early 90’s including political assassinations and bombings including the blowing up of an Avianca passenger jet which claimed 110 lives.

With the formation of “Search Bloc,” a special elite police task force, a unit that had received it’s training from members of the US military’s Delta Force and Centra Spike. Search Bloc’s sole task was to locate and arrest or kill Escobar. Even so, “El Patron” had retained his uncanny ability to always be one step ahead from the authorities to ensure he would evade capture. By this point in the era of the Medellin Cartel however, and specifically, how the general public across Colombia viewed the atrocities that they had been complicit in that had threatened to bring the country to it’s knees. Escobar and his hombres had ran out of friends. The head of the cartel being already announced as an enemy of the state years before with Escobar escalating things further with his response that the Medellin Cartel were now officially at war with Colombia.

Through this anti Escobar feeling his enemies grew thick and fast. A vigilante group who were named Los Pepes (Los Perseguidos for Pablo Escobar - People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) were formed. Bankrolled by his rivals from other cartels and right wing paramiliteries, both who had been subject of attacks from Escobar in the past. This team of vigilantes who had no problems doing their “work” from an unethical standpoint as opposed to the government funded Search Bloc, carried out a brutal and bloody campaign with no mercy shown as they killed over 300 of Escobar’s cartel members, associates and relatives on a rampage that seemed a touch on the proactive side for a group of so called vigilante group. Los Pepes also destroyed huge parts of his Hacienda Napoles ranch and other property belonging to the drug lord while he was on the run.

Killed along with El Limon that day. It has never been proven who actually fired the bullet that killed the man who was no stranger to taking his place on the famed FBI’s top 10 most wanted fugitives. Suffering gunshots to the leg and torso and the fatal shot through his ears. It has never been proved whether the shot had come from one of Search Bloc or by the man himself. Following Escobar’s death and in an interview. His brother Roberto said ‘He committed suicide, he did not get killed. During all the years they went after him, he would say to me every day that if he was really cornered without a way out, he would shoot himself through the ears’ It is certainly true that the one thing that scared Escobar more than anything or anyone was the thought of being extradited to America to face charges. “Better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the United States” a mantra repeated by El Patron and his cartel allies.”

With the, at the time, murky cross contaminated world of powerful drug cartels infiltrating both the political sphere but also the law enforcement side of things. It’s no surprise that it has never been proven how he actually died and by whom. Colombia had finally caught and killed (well, maybe) their infamous public enemy number one after years of attempts. Yet, had Dave Tomkins a 75 year old ex safe cracker turned mercenary from Basingstoke had anything to do with it. The job on Escobar would’ve been taken care of years before his actual death that day in Medellin. Tomkins himself, no stranger to cartel land who, after spells in Afghanistan, Croatia and Angola, went from training Medellin sicarios in warfare to planning to bomb Escobar with a Vietnam era fighter jet to an American jail sentence as a 63 year old who had been on the run for over 10 years from the feds.

In what has been a colourful and truly remarkable life. He started on the path of the leftfield by specialising in blowing up safes in Britain and across Europe. Through his position of professional thief this was not without it’s periods of incarceration. Tomkins spending the whole of the 60’s in and out of prison. By 1976, and this coming after the year where he had made the national newspapers having been arrested on conspiracy charges in relation to his safe cracking lifestyle, he was offered a way out of the British crime scene.

He was handed the chance by an arms seller to fight as a mercenary in what was at the time, Africa’s most dangerous and bloodiest of civil wars. For a man who admittedly was addicted to seeking adrenalin rushes not to mention out of work and without money to pay the phone bill, he was in Northern Angola within 48 hours with a rifle in his hand ready to go. In an interview with The Telegraph his wife, Mary told the story “My eldest daughter was four, and my son was about 10 months. i remember we had no money to pay the telephone bill and they were going to cut us off. I’d gone to bed and Dave had gone out to the local nightclub with about 52 pence in his pocket. He came back, threw some money on the bed and said ‘Pay the phone bill, I’m going to Angola.’ I didn’t have time to protest. The next day, he was gone.”

During his term in Angola, Tomkins became one of the infamous ‘Dogs of War’ soldiers of fortune fighters. Naturally he gravitated towards to position of explosives experts under the scandalously bloodthirsty and all round nasty bastard that was the leader of the dogs, Colonel Callan. A man once described as a ‘man of despotic power and satanic terror.’ After his experience in Angola, even after one month into his tour, miraculously surviving tripping a landmine that he was laying and blowing himself up, he had been bitten by the war bug.

His next stop was Afghanistan and along with generous donations from the United States, to help The Mujahideen including one Osama Bin Laden, defend the country from the might of the Soviet military. Then he found himself in war torn Croatia fighting alongside feared warlords as parts of the country were reduced to rubble. He was also in Uganda and involved in a plot to assassinate Idi Amin in addition to being asked to head up a team to provide the same service to the President of Togo. Like any self respecting mercenary, Tomkins went whoever was paying the best.

And it was this that brought him to Colombia towards the end of the 80’s. With the Cartels by then, billion dollar businesses, if a job of more of a niche nature required done it was approached from a money no object direction. Recruited by Jorge Salcedo, a man who worked for the Medellin Cartel before defecting to their hated rivals from Cali, eventually then turning on the Cali based drug traffickers and striking a deal with the DEA involving him passing on cartel information. Tomkins was initially brought to Colombia to, and alongside a crack squad of British mercenaries including ex SAS, deal with the revolutionary army FARC who were seen as a threat to Colombian national security. Unable to convince the political leaders to attack the guerrillas. In an off the books mission, it was decided by the army that private foreign contractors would be used and with it being an unofficial and very much illegal attack it could not be funded through the government.

According to Tomkins, a Medellin based cartel funded the mission because they wanted to to exterminate FARC, who were also a common enemy as they were a challenge to their expanding drug empire. Despite having assembled a squad of 16 with the calibre of men such as 2 ex SAS soldiers who had taken part in the Iranian embassy siege in 1980 in London.The illegal attack was called off due to political interference and instead Tomkins found himself teaching young sicarios who worked for drug kingpin brothers Miguel & Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela how to build bombs and fire weapons.

Tomkins was only back in England 3 months when Salcedo was tempting him back with the biggest adrenalin rush of them all. To plan and execute a mission to attack and kill Pablo Escobar. For Tomkins, this was an offer that he simply could not refuse. Along with his friend, Peter McAleese who he had served in Angola and Colombia with, he flew out to Colombia to plan the assassination of the most wanted narcotics trader in the world. Hired by Salcedo, who had by now left his position of security adviser to Escobar in favour of the same position with the Cali Cartel. The plan had been for Salcedo and his bosses in Cali to strike a dangerous blow to their rivals from the north by taking out their leader in a planned helicopter attack on him at his sprawling Hacienda Napoles ranch.

A team of cartel spies had been placed in a hideout overlooking Medellin with the job of trying to intercept Escobar’s mobile phone signals. Word came back from the Cali spies that on May 31st Escobar would be in Medellin to celebrate his football team (and one he was strongly rumored to be cleaning some of his money with) Atletico Nacional winning the Copa Libertadores tournament. The first time a Colombian domestic side had won the trophy in 41 years.

As soon as the news came through, 2 Vietnam style Huey choppers, painted and disguised as police helicopters were put on alert. There was one last piece of confirmation that was required before Tomkins and McAleese would get the green light and that was to gain actual voice recognition that Escobar was there. The spy team arranged to call Escobar at 11am, if there was no confirmation of his voice over the phone then the mission was to be called off. This was an attack that Cali knew they had one chance at and were it not to be executed exactly as planned life for them would be about to become all the more difficult for it. The confirmation came through to Cali that El Patron was there. Operation Phoenix, as it had been named, was in play.

The two choppers filled with ex British and Israeli special forces set off for a journey of almost 3 hours of flying over heavy jungles and mountain ranges. As the Huey's began their approach to the drop zone, disaster struck the mission when, in poor visibility the helicopter that both Tomkins & McAleese were in crashed into a mountain peak that had been obscured by clouds taking the chopper down into the jungle. The pilot was killed instantly, however despite flying straight into a mountain and what was left of the helicopter crashing into the jungle. Tomkins & McAleese survived.

Despite the attack team being in contact with their Cali paymasters by satellite phone, no help appeared to be coming which left the pair with no option other than to get themselves out of the jungle to safety. With Escobar’s cocaine labs located in the jungle in addition to various paramilitary hideouts, the pair took three days of evading being captured or killed by various factions before finally exiting the jungle to safety. Through Escobar’s wide network of contacts it didn’t take long before he learned of the aborted mission and in June 1989 Tomkin called off the operation, returning home to the UK via Panama. Escobar had sourced the names of the mercenaries who had planned to attack him and if he was true to his normal form, their names would be on a list of his own. Tomkin appeared to be underwhelmed by this telling a Colombian reporter ‘Right now we have three choices, run, hide or go ahead. There is nowhere to run to and we can’t hide, so we are determined to go on until we finish what we came here to do.’ The potential buzz of killing Escobar evidently had not left Tomkins by 1991 when his name was being spoken about once more in connection with assassinating El Patron.

Towards the end of the year, US officials claim, Tomkins was offered $10m to kill Escobar by the Cali Cartel. The goalposts had shifted two years on from his last attempt on the cartel boss’s life however. By now Escobar had surrendered to the authorities with various caveats attached. One being that he would be held for five years in his own purpose built jail, La Catedral, and most importantly, avoid extradition to the United States to face trial. Built to his own specifications the “prison” was also called Club Medellin due to it’s outrageous amenities. Boasting football pitches, a giant dolls house for his daughter to play in when visiting, a fully stocked bar, casino (yes, casino) it was a place of incarceration that could have only existed during the excessive in all ways cartel era of a country that was nicknamed at the time “Locombia.”

Unlike the previous operation there would be no ex SAS or Israeli special forces jumping out of helicopters. This time, according to US State prosecutors, Tomkins was involved in a plot to bomb La Catedral in a fighter jet attack. While in the planning stage for the attack, Tomkins met with an arms dealer contact in America, not knowing that he was walking straight into a U.S Customs undercover sting after the agency had collected intel from Puerto Rico of the planned attack by the cartel from Cali. Sitting down with the undercover agents at Miami’s Hotel Intercontinental on December 9th, he negotiated the acquisition of a Cessesna A-37B Dragonfly small fighter jet, fully equipped with bomb bays and machine guns. He was also accused of trying to purchase 500 pound bombs from another supplier in El Salvador to be equipped to the jet.

He was taken by the undercover agents to Opa-locka Airport to inspect the plane, on loan from the Pentagon to aide the operation. According to ex US Customs agent, Bill Castillo. After inspecting the plane, Tomkins handed over an envelope containing a down payment of $25,000 to the agents with an agreement to meet again in already in place. Within days, Tomkins had been tipped off by an associate that he had in fact met with U.S undercover agents and promptly disappeared. Finally surfacing again on December 17th to call his contact from the fighter jet deal, U.S Customs agent Fred Greffe. The call was described in court as more of a taunt than an actual phone call. Greffe stated that Tomkins had called him to say that he was sorry that he didn’t go through with the deal to buy the Cessesna but that he had to “exodus” the country in a hurry. It hadn’t been a coincidental use of that particular word by the soldier of fortune from Basingstoke. The sting that he had been caught in was part of a larger U.S Customs investigation called “Operation Exodus.”

Incredibly, there was no going into hiding or changing identities for Tomkins having now found himself a wanted man by the United States of America. He simply returned home to Basingstoke to his wife and family and carried on with life. In his absence, he was indicted in April 1994 by the Federal Court in the Southern District of Florida for conspiracy to violate arms export laws. According to Federal prosecutors, as a fugitive, he continued to travel to war torn parts of the world providing his specialist services. This came to an end 13 years after running from the U.S authorities when in the summer of 2004 he flew into Houston’s George Bush International Airport. When the airport immigration officer entered Tomkins passport number into his system, he got a hit. The 63 year old had secured a contract assisting with security with US company, Skylink, which had been recruiting security personnel to manage Iraq’s three airports - in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. He had flown to Texas to take part in a chemical weapons survival course at Fort Bliss in preparation for his “one last job” as a “security expert” in Iraq.

Instead of Iraq and the experience of one final buzz of being in a country at war that anyone of sane mind would do all they could to stay away from, all Tomkins would see was a jail cell in Miami. He claimed that after 13 years since the undercover sting had taken place, his right to a speedy trial had been violated because the United States had known where he was all that time. At home in Basingstoke, South London, but that they had made no move to extradite him. This was shot down by British prosecutor Paul Close who testified that extradition would not have worked in Tomkins case as the treaty between Britain and the United States did not cover the crime that he was being accused of. Prosecutors and defence agreed on a 33 month prison term for the Englishman that saw him released in 2007 and at 67 officially retired from private army contracting. Given the life he’d led there’s not a drug trafficker, arms dealer or federal agent or judge in the world that could grudge him a chance to go and put his feet up. With more tours under his belt than The Rolling Stones David Tomkins has earned his right to a quiet life, not that he'd probably want one.
Read 16315 times Last modified on Sunday, 24 January 2016 15:03
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