The death of an exiled oligarch billionaire, the jailing of Russia’s richest man and a mystery helicopter crash share one similarity – a Wearside man. Craig Thompson investigates.
HELICOPTERS hired by the world’s media circle an English mansion as the body of Boris Berezovsky’s is taken away.
The Russian multi-millionaire was found dead in his bathroom on Saturday by an employee concerned about the 67-year-old’s welfare.
So far, there is no evidence of a “third party” being involved in Mr Berezovsky’s death.
In the aftermath of his death, a cordon was put in place around the house in Ascot, Berkshire, circling the luxury property Berezovsky called home.
He was said to have become depressed in recent months after losing a multi-billion-pound court case against Roman Abromovich, owner of Chelsea FC.
Whatever the circumstances, Berezovsky’s death is yet another chapter in the intriguing tale of Russia’s oligarchs; a tale that encompasses spying, double-dealing, power, death, and a lot of money.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, a Sunderland man found himself becoming companion to some of the richest and most powerful men in Russia.
Stephen Langford Curtis was born in Sunderland on August 7, 1958. He was the son of a city accountant.
After being schooled in Wearside, he attended Aberystwyth University before taking up a solicitor’s role with City law firm Fox and Gibbons.
In 1990, he set up his own firm, Curtis & Co, which specialised in commercial and property transactions.
It was in 1997 that he first started working for Bank Menatep, set up by Mikhail Khordorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man.
The bank formed the centre of the Russian’s business empire which, at the time, was centred on the £15billion Siberian oil company, Yukos.
The job of managing Yukos’ offshore network – and its money – fell to Mr Curtis.
A reputation for having a memory for details, requiring minimum paperwork, Mr Curtis was discreet and professional, exactly what his client wanted, and expected.
Complex financial networks spanning the globe were soon set up and controlled from Mr Curtis’ Mayfair offices.
By 1998, the little-known solicitor had made a big name for himself and was enlisted by an American defence and communications contractor when it was looking for a Russian-based partner to help establish a satellite company for broadcasting in Russia.
It was then Mr Curtis met Boris Berezovsky, another wealthy Russian who had made his fortune from oil and a media empire.
Despite their wealth Khordorkovsky, Berezovsky and Abromovich were still relatively unknown in Britain. Certainly, no one on Wearside could have believed that their billions of pounds was being looked after by a Mackem.
As time went on, Russia became more of a hostile place for these super-rich men – the constant risk of assassination combined with scrutiny from the tax authorities left them seeking refuge elsewhere.
So they arrived in Britain.
By 2000, oligarch money was being thrown around London like confetti, and the city became the playground of the Russian rich.
Despite their increasing fame, one of the most pivotal figures in their rise remained in the shadows – Stephen Curtis.
In Sunderland, those who knew Curtis described him as a “quiet but highly intelligent” man who had no desire for the limelight.
Yet he had somehow gained the trust of the world’s richest men who, by nature, were sceptical, paranoid and untrusting.
He protected their wealth and became guardian of their bank accounts.
By this point, Curtis had made enough money to move into the 19th-Century Pennsylvania Castle in Dorset. He also had a penthouse in London and a private helicopter.
He would hire executive boxes at Manchester United for Berezovsky and Yukos executives.
But in 2003, events would occur that would change the life of Mr Curtis – and the oligarchs.
Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint in Siberia for alleged tax evasion and fraud. Unable to control his empire from behind bars, it was down to Mr Curtis to take over the reins at Yukos.
In the months leading up to his death in 2004, reports suggested the Wearsider was receiving death threats and becoming increasingly concerned about his personal security.
At 6.56pm on March 3, 2004, a new six-seater £1.5million Agusta helicopter landed at Battersea Heliport in South London.
Mr Curtis, now 45, climbed into the rear seat before the helicopter lifted off at 6.59pm. Flying conditions were reasonable for the short trip to Dorset.
By the time the helicopter approached Bournemouth airport, the runway was obscured by cloud and Captain Max Radford contacted air traffic control for permission to land. Suddenly, something went very wrong and the pilot confirmed he had lost control.
The helicopter nose-dived into a field at high speed, exploding on impact. A 30ft fireball shot into the air. Mr Radford and Mr Curtis died instantly.
Devastating to his wife and young daughter, Mr Curtis’ death also sent shockwaves right through the intelligence world, the business world and the political world – right to the door of the Kremlin.
A jury at the inquest into the accident took just over an hour to reach a verdict of accidental death. Others, however, remained sceptical.
Family members still living in Sunderland expressed concerns about the “accident”. others called outright for a murder investigation.
Mr Curtis’ funeral was held on April 7, 2004. Most of his clients attended, as did Boris Berezovsky.
The death of Mr Berezovsky on Saturday, who had been on Moscow’s Most Wanted list since 2001, ends another chapter in the rollercoaster world of the oligarch.
The oligarchs’ story
The oligarchs are the product of the privatization of state companies after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Russian economy was in disarray and the Government wanted to redistribute badly-managed state-owned companies in just about every industry you can imagine in an effort to move towards capitalism.
In 1994, executives at Russia’s only Swiss Central Bank accredited bank, Oneksim Bank, came up with a plan to help then-President Boris Yeltsin and his administration raise some cash while distributing the companies.
The plan was called “loans for shares.” Russian banks lent the Government money in exchange for temporary stakes in state-owned companies. If the Government defaulted on its loan, the banks got to keep their stakes.
Of course, the Government did default, and those with the capital did take advantage.