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GUILTY: Shipowner torches own tanker, blames pirates, in $77m fraud case

PortandTerminal.com, October 8, 2019

“Mr Iliopoulos had a motive to want the vessel to be damaged by fire, namely, the making of a fraudulent claim for the total loss of the vessel in the sum of some US$77 million which, if successful, would solve the serious financial difficulties in which he and his companies were at the time.”

LONDON, ENGLAND – A Greek shipowner, Stefanon Iliopoulos, orchestrated a plan for men posing as pirates to attack and set fire to his tanker, the Brillante Virtuoso, in an elaborate fraud to seek $77 million in insurance money, a London judge found. “The constructive total loss of Brillante Virtuoso was caused by the wilful misconduct of the owner, Mr Iliopoulos,” stated the judge. 

What happened to the Brillante Virtuoso?

Brillante Virtuoso

On July 6, 2011, the Brillante Virtuoso was drifting off Aden, awaiting a team of unarmed security contractors before transiting Bab el-Mandeb. It was while waiting for them to arrive that a small boat approached carrying seven masked men.

The seven men 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 a crew member confronted them and asked for their ID, they refused, seized his radio, and demanded to be taken to the captain.

Source: Bloomberg – The last voyage of the Brillante Virtuoso

The men informed the crew that they were “security,” and they came aboard with the master’s permission. They ordered the crew to the day room and escorted the master to the bridge and the chief engineer to the engine room. 

On the bridge, at about 0024, they ordered the master to make way for Somalia, which would require a course east-southeast. Instead, he steered southwest, towards Djibouti and away from Somalia. At about 0228, the engine came to a stop, either due to mechanical failure or to the chief engineer’s actions.  

Sailors from USS Philippine Sea rescue the crew of the Brillante Virtuoso

At 0245, the attackers detonated an IED in the fuel purifier room, starting a fire. An accelerant and additional fuel caused the fire to spread. The attackers departed, and the chief officer made a distress call reporting a pirate attack (at 0303). The Ship Security Alert System was activated at 0306. The master and crew (except for the chief engineer) abandoned ship at 0416 and were rescued by the cruiser USS Philippine Sea. 

The owner of Brillante Virtuoso, Marios Illiopoulos. His company was found to be in serious financial difficulty at the time of the fraud.

After a survey of the fire damage, the vessel was judged a total loss, and owner Marios Iliopoulos and banker Piraeus Bank filed a $77 million insurance claim. 

Investigation and Murder

Captain David Mockett, 64, died when a car bomb on his Lexus exploded in the southern port city of Aden on 20 July 2011

Before the insurers would pay Iliopoulos’ claim of $77 million they wanted a better understanding of the hijacking. David Mockett, a British marine shipping surveyor and consultant was hired to investigate the incident. Mr Mockett was the top maritime surveyor in Aden and a highly respected professional of integrity.

After his investigation, Mockett concluded that the Brillante Virtuoso incident was not piracy but rather a scam. The entire thing had been set up so that insurers would payout once the “attacked” ship had been surveyed for damage and loss.

The car Capt Mockett was in when he was murdered (Photo: Reuters)

Mr Mockett paid for his professionalism with his life. A “relatively sophisticated” explosive device was placed underneath his vehicle and he died.

Pathologist Dr Amanda Jeffery said Capt Mockett, who could only be identified by dental records, died from blast injuries “very quickly”.

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