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“Welcome to The Mardi Gra Experience” – Part 1

The terror began on December 6th 1994. Six individual parcels, each one about the size of a book and wrapped in blue Christmas wrapping paper with gold stars on it were delivered to six different branches of Barclays Bank in London. The address on each parcel had been carefully typed on an old-fashioned typewriter, cut out and taped to each package, and each package had been sent first class, with the stamp being franked as being sorted at 5:13pm on December 5th. In the bottom left hand corner of each parcel was stuck a photocopied picture of four men wearing black suits and sunglasses, in a scene that looked like a mock up still from the film Reservoir Dogs. On the photocopy was the caption:

WELCOME TO THE MARDI GRA EXPERIENCE

A part-time clerk working at the Hampstead High Street Branch, Bali Hari, recieved burns to her arms and hands when a Christmas present delivered with that morning’s post had exploded as she opened it. Just four minutes later, a few miles away in the Ladbroke Grove branch, a clerk named Martin Grimsdale was temporary deafened when one of the parcels exploded as it was opened. Quick thinking staff raised the alarm and called each branch in an attempt to halt the opening of the morning post. The four other parcels that had been sent were recovered at different branches across West London, and the packages were examined.

The “bombs” were found to have been concealed inside empty double video cases, with a larger photocopy of the “Mardi Gra” logo placed in the sleeve. Clearly home made, they consisted of a spring loaded bolt with a sharp nail fixed to one end. Fastened onto the end of this was a shotgun cartridge that had been primed with firework gunpowder and loosely packed with ball bearings. Because they had been so loosely packed, they had not exploded outwards as the bomber had intended. But a forensic expert who examined them was to later say that if these cartridges had been packed properly, although home made and basic, each device could easily have killed the targets.

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One of the initial six “Mardi Gra” packages

SO13 of the Metropolitan Police were tasked with investigating the bombings, and “Operation Heath” quickly ruled out any links to any mainstream terrorist organisation being involved: the devices were too crude, the target was unlikely, and as one detective on the case later stated,

“The target was wrong, the technology of the device was wrong. It was real kitchen table stuff”

The first line of enquiry to be undertaken by investigators was to try and source the devices components, and to examine the mechanics of how the device had been made. Perhaps the bomber was someone with a mechanical or engineering background – in which case it may make the task of narrowing down the field of suspects easier. Another team concurrently combed Barclays personnel files and customer complaint files, working on the premise that when a commercial organisation is attacked, the most likely culprit is either a disgruntled customer or current or ex member of staff with a grievance. Police had decided that this was the beginning of an extortion campaign, but they had had no word from the bomber about any ideology behind the attacks, or any possible ransom.

Just two days later, that was to change.

On December 8th 1994, a typewritten letter, containing the now infamous logo on its envelope, was received by police. The letter demanded £2,000 per day, 365 days a year, a detailed method of communication back and forth, and how to pay the ransom. Barclays were to produce promotional, dummy looking Barclaycards, and give them away with magazines. But they were actually able to be used as a cashcard. The bomber would have a PIN number that could activate the cards, and this was to be given to him through a coded message in the personal column of the Daily Telegraph newspaper, no later than December 10th. Chillingly, the letter warned:

“In the event of a negative response, all Barclays staff will be regarded as dispensable targets”

The letter was signed Mardine Graham. The “Mardi Gra” bomber had played his opening hand.

As is commonplace with extortion attempts, a strict news blackout was imposed, hoping that lack of knowledge about the hunt for him may make the bomber make a mistake or lull him into a false sense of security. But it was important to try to establish a line of communication with him, so police co-operated and placed this advert in the Daily Express personals column on December 10th.

O.K. MARDINE GRAHAM, sorry was late, I was confused. Please explain. Richard

They heard nothing. Mardi Gra never replied, and had gone to ground. In the absence of any further communication, detectives worked through their enormous list of disgruntled customers, employees and ex employees with grievances, looking for a suspect. But this mammoth task led to nothing. It was to be over five months before Mardi Gra was heard from again.

On May 15th 1995, Barclays Bank head office in Northampton received a second demand letter from Mardi Gra, in which he detailed a new approach to his campaign. Rather than attack banks directly, Mardi Gra had now decided to select random people. There was an added bonus to this, it spread the bombing campaign whilst still tightening the screw on Barclays. It would also massively waste police time as they would be forced to do a detailed check on victims, searching for any link between them, however tenuous. Every device sent was accompanied by some form of reference to Barclays Bank, usually a piece of paper bearing the slogan, “With the Compliments of Barclaycard”

More bombs were then sent, one to an address in Peterborough which arrived on 19th May. The next arrived at a shop in Dymchurch, Kent, on 1st June. On 9th June, the Crown and Anchor pub in Chiswick received a package – the only one of the three to explode, although nobody was seriously hurt. Three more, again sent to random people, were despatched over a two week period following this. The first however, was sent to Barclays head office and consisted of a rifle bullet surrounded by gunpowder and lead pellets, packed inside a plastic bottle. This device was sent deactivated, however, as it did not contain a  firing pin.

This set a pattern that would continue into early 1996. There would be a flurry of activity from Mardi Gra – he would send devices out in succession to random private addresses, with the targets scattered around a wide area with no discernible pattern. He also experimented with different disguises for his bombs – they were sent disguised as rolled up copies of magazines, as hollowed out books, or in his classic wrapped present guise. He would switch tactics from using his favoured parcel type bomb, to then use a crude and homemade anti-personnel nail bomb designed to explode into someone’s face, to then use a briefcase with a helium gas cylinder that had been emptied and refilled with a petrol based gas. He attacked businesses, left devices in telephone boxes, or on the pavement near Barclays premises, and all within wide ranging locations that had no discernible pattern to them. What was common, however, was the “With the Compliments of Barclaycard” message that was placed with each. The bombs, although still crude, started to become bolder and to have more lethal potential, and police were more fearful that ever that someone would be soon be killed by a “Mardi Gra” device.  Following the last gas cylinder device, which exploded outside a Barclays branch in Eltham, Mardi Gra again went quiet for two months.

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A police replica of one of Mardi Gra’s devices

Since the beginning of Mardi Gra’s campaign, police and Barclays senior management had adopted the strategy of a media blackout to prevent mass panic and any possible copycat attacks or threats. In the two months of quiet, the bomber had pondered how best he could exert pressure on Barclays to cave into his demands, and so decided to self-publicise his campaign. On April 3rd 1996, the offices of the Daily Mail newspaper received a long rambling letter from Mardi Gra himself, detailing his demands, the 25 devices that had been planted up to that point – including pictures of a prototype “new” device – and a repeated threat to the welfare of Barclays customers and staff in public, at work or even at home if an acknowledgement was not published within the Mail within a seven day time limit.

This forced the hand of police and Barclays, and they had no choice but to go public. At a packed press conference, Detective Superintendent John Beadle tried to play down the perceived threat. He was to tell the assembled media:

“I must stress that the real threat to the public is low. The fear of crime is much greater than the reality…….My advice is to report anything suspicious to the police, but the public should carry on in their normal daily lives.”

The media response to this was electric. Double page newspaper features and television reports were everywhere, describing Mardi Gra’s devices, their potential for harm and their construction, and the campaign and communication that police and Barclays had received from the bomber to date. The bomber’s motives were examined, and “celebrity” figures such as former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, John Stalker, contributed to sensationalist newspaper articles in which the bomber was profiled and the general public were invited to become armchair detectives to identify “Mardi Gra”.

Just over two weeks after his letter to the Daily Mail, Mardi Gra struck again. On April 20th 1996, a black plastic bin liner containing a device was placed in an alleyway that was adjacent to the Ealing Broadway branch of Barclays in West London. At exactly 3:00pm, it exploded. For the first time since the initial devices had been sent nearly 18 months before, Mardi Gra had caused real harm. Three people who were stood in close proximity to the device were peppered with shotgun pellets that were travelling at over 300 feet per second, and required hospitalisation to tend to their wounds, which although serious were not life threatening. This brought this part of West London to a standstill that day – TTCE remembers this well because as a young RAF serviceman on his way back to camp that day after visiting home for the weekend, he was caught up and delayed for hours whilst travelling through London as a result of this Mardi Gra attack.

When the remnants of the device were examined by forensics, it was discovered that this was the “new” device that Mardi Gra had detailed in his letter to the Daily Mail. It was more an updated version of the classic video case device that Mardi Gra had first used, but now contained a single home- made barrel acting as a compression chamber. This then gave the shot in the Winchester clay pigeon cartridge contained within more force and a better general direction. This was an alarming escalation, and of course the media fed upon this. The newspaper reports and television appeals continued.

Barclays Bank chairman at the time, Andrew Buxton, was interviewed on a BBC news television broadcast just after this latest attack, and he revealed that Barclays were preparing to take the most drastic steps available to protect itself, its staff and customers. He revealed that this would even mean closing branches down if this was deemed a necessary precaution. This revelation was to change the course of the investigation and provide a major hurdle to Operation Heath – because Mardi Gra simply decided to stop again. It was later revealed that he had not simply given up his blackmail campaign – but he had decided to muddy the waters by changing targets. Or rather, focusing also upon an additional one.

In the mid 1990’s as is still the case now, UK High Street supermarkets were locked in a war for custom and profit. The coveted premier spot had been held by Sainsbury’s for many years – but in 1995 they were toppled by an arch-rival and one of the canonical “big four” supermarkets in the UK, Tesco. This made widespread news and was all over the press and television. And somebody took note, because on 10th July 1996, the following letter arrived at the Sainsbury’s head office in Central London:

Welcome to the Mardi Gra Experience……The police will be able to fill in the general details of the deal as we are almost old chums……You have seven days to respond followed by a death or glory outcome. Now there’s a deal that’s a boardroom winner!

The letter went on to explain that Mardi Gra had not called amnesty on his campaign against Barclays – they would be his focus again at some stage. Operation Heath now had the unenviable task of majorly beginning the enquiry again – it had been a daunting enough task looking through the list of possible persons of interest that they had gained from Barclays. Now they had to look again from the beginning of the list to see if any of the people they had already cross- checked had a connection to Sainsbury’s as well as Barclays – all the while bearing in mind that there may be no connection at all, and that Mardi Gra had just chosen two of the most famous UK established names at random to target. Police responded – again using Mardi Gra’s chosen form of communication of the personal columns – but this time using the Daily Mail newspaper. The response is reproduced here:

MARDI GRA We are ready to help and give value. Contact us on the verification number.

Nothing. Mardi Gra had gone to ground again.

 

To be continued.

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

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