Friday, February 17, 2012

Scotland Yard's Baffling Case of the Playboy Killer

Eccentric victim

Charalambos Christodoulides
Charalambos Christodoulides
Charalambos Christodoulides, 57 and originally from Cyprus, was a quiet, reserved man who enjoyed donning Savile Row suits or other designer clothes and accessories for visits to west London's Piccadilly area, where he would sit alone in fast-food restaurants until the early hours of the morning, usually talking to no one while he read books and studied racing forms before making his way by bus back to his small flat in a warehouse on Bannister Road in Kilburn, in northwest London. The warehouse was owned by Michael Lanitis, who was married to Christodoulides' sister, Annina, and who had purchased it in 1978. Lanitis set up a couple of flats inside it and operated a successful wholesale food, beer and wine company from there. For a time it seemed like Lanitis and Christodoulides had an enviable arrangement, living and working in the same building. Christodoulides had worked for his brother-in-law, despite having earned a degree in economics, until an injury by a barrel forced him onto disability. Some believed the accident had been the primary reason that he had become withdrawn and began living an isolated, frugal lifestyle.
Lanitis closed the warehouse in 1993, and he, Annina, and their son moved into a new home four years later. Although they offered Christodoulides a room in their new home, he declined, preferring to remain behind, continuing to live in the small flat above the warehouse.
"He preferred to stay there because he knew the area and the bus stop was outside," Annina said. "He took the bus to go to the West End. As long as he was happy, I was happy, too...He wasn't the kind to make friends. He was living his life like he wanted to live."
In 1999, Lanitis put the warehouse up for sale, leaving Christodoulides with the sudden prospect of having to find a new place to live when it sold.
Christodoulides lived an uncomplicated life in part because he did not have much money. Nonetheless, he seemed to be happy doing the simple things that he liked, such as routinely placing small bets of just a few pounds with the local bookmakers on the horses, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. He would speak to his sister by telephone nearly every day, and she would often show up at the warehouse to bring him food and to help him clean his flat. He also went to Michael and Annina's home for lunch nearly every Sunday, yet another simple pleasure that had become a routine. For the most part, his family had little reason to worry about him, until he failed to show up for one of their regular lunches on Sunday, March 12, 2000. Initially, family members reasoned that something must have come up that prevented him from keeping the date and temporarily put their concern aside. Annina, who was about 50 at the time, often referred to her brother as "Bambi" due to his gentle nature and kind spirit.
"He was quiet, charming, loveable and caused no problems," Annina said.

Last seen

It was not until Thursday, March 16, 2000, that his family became concerned enough over his lack of contact with them that they decided to contact the police. Annina told investigators that she had last seen her brother only a few days before their scheduled Sunday visit when she stopped by the warehouse.
Charalambos Christodoulides
Charalambos Christodoulides
Officers who initially went to the warehouse did not find any signs of forced entry. When they searched the building they found Christodoulides' glasses, wallet, a bus pass, among other items, and traces of blood, but did not find him or any evidence indicating where he'd gone. Investigators learned that Christodoulides had been seen at the bookmaker he frequented on Edgware Road on Thursday afternoon, March 9, 2000, and the search of his bedroom had turned up the early edition of the March 10, 2000, issue of Racing Post. However, Christodoulides had never returned to the bookmaker to collect his winnings. Investigators noted that his bus pass had expired on March 9, and had not been renewed.
When initial efforts failed to turn up any clues to Christodoulides' whereabouts, investigators postulated that his disappearance might be due to amnesia or other incapacitation. This was an unacceptable theory to the family, who wanted police to search the warehouse again. Relenting to pressure from the family, police conducted a second search, more detailed and methodical than the first, nine days later on Saturday, March 25, 2000, and turned up a body wrapped in sheets and garbage bags, concealed in a vehicle inspection pit in the garage area.
The car inspection pit in which Christodoulides' body was found
The car inspection pit in which Christodoulides' body was found

Postmortem Examination

Charalambos Christodoulides
Charalambos Christodoulides
The body had been covered in paint remover in an effort, police believed, to thwart sniffer dogs, and some reports indicated that it also bore evidence of burning. It appeared to investigators that an attempt had been made to set the body on fire to either destroy evidence or to delay or prevent identification. Although decomposition was considerably advanced by that time, the body appeared to be that of a male and fit the general characteristics of Christodoulides, but the condition of the corpse made determination of anything more specific, such as cause of death, impossible at that time.
Two days later, a definitive autopsy was conducted at Northwick Park Mortuary where the body was positively identified as that of Charalambos Christodoulides. It was also established that Christodoulides had been subjected to a prolonged assault and had eventually died of strangulation. There was also blood spatter evidence suggesting that he had been restrained in a chair with bindings, and that he may have had a hood placed over his head for at least part of the torturous ordeal to which his assailants had submitted him.
Thanos Papalexis
Thanos Papalexis
Why had Christodoulides been tortured and killed with such savagery? Investigators, including senior officer John Yates, who would later become Scotland Yard's Assistant Commissioner, could only wonder at this point. Detectives eventually found evidence indicating that Christodoulides had been initially assaulted outside the warehouse, perhaps as he returned home from one of his regular trips to Piccadilly Circus, and then dragged inside where he was ultimately killed. It appeared to the detectives that Christodoulides' killers had not only tortured him for some as-yet unknown reason, but that they had gone to great lengths to conceal his body and clean up the crime scene. However, investigators collected a multitude of evidence from the warehouse, including DNA and fingerprints, over time.
During the course of an investigation that would span eight years, detectives kept running across the name of Thanos Papalexis. Papalexis, 37, was the British-born son of a Greek shipping tycoon. His name first surfaced in connection with Christodoulides' disappearance when investigators learned that Papalexis had agreed in November 1999 to purchase the warehouse where Christodoulides resided from Lanitis to turn it into a new development project.

A shady deal

Unbeknownst to Lanitis, Papalexis was facing a financial crisis of major proportions at the time he agreed to purchase the warehouse. Papalexis had begun developing another property in Holloway into luxury flats in 1999. He had hired a number of illegal immigrants to work on the development, and the substandard work they performed due to their inexperience placed the project in jeopardy from its inception. Using fake CV's and information from friends, Papalexis was nonetheless able to secure substantial bank loans that he would ultimately be unable to pay back.
Thanos Papalexis
Thanos Papalexis
Lanitis also was unaware that Papalexis had no intention of developing the warehouse but had, instead, engaged in a deal in which he would buy the warehouse only to turn around and sell it quickly to raise much-needed capital for his other ventures and to support his lavish lifestyle. In the deal, Papalexis stood to make a fast £300,000 profit—nearly a half-million dollars at the time. But the deal had a catch: he needed to proceed with the sale quickly or face losing £60,000 weekly in interest payments on the creative financing scheme in which he had engaged. Papalexis could only make the sale quickly if the warehouse's caretaker, Christodoulides, agreed to vacate the property immediately. Christodoulides, however, refused to leave. Police would eventually conclude he had been brutally murdered because he had stood in the way of Papalexis' real estate flip.
For the next nine months, investigators continued gathering evidence at the warehouse including fingerprints and DNA. Of course, fingerprints and DNA linked Papalexis to the property, but to the detectives who first handled the case it was not enough. Papalexis could have left his DNA and fingerprints there in the course of visiting the property during his negotiations to buy it. Although investigators did not immediately divulge the location of the fingerprints and the DNA, there was also DNA and fingerprints of two other as yet unidentified males with which they had to contend. Detectives also felt that if they charged Papalexis with a crime at that time, on his own, he would simply have blamed the other two mystery men of having killed Christodoulides.
There was another problem. Papalexis left the United Kingdom within two weeks after Christodoulides' murder and landed in Palm Beach, Fla., well outside the investigative reach of Scotland Yard.

Playboy scoundrel

Soon after arriving in Palm Beach, Papalexis began making friends with the rich and famous and living lavishly. He moved into a 5,700 square foot mansion in the beach community of Manalapan, north of Miami, where he threw huge parties and lived large. His office furnishings included golden thrones, and he utilized former Special Forces personnel, whose experience included the protection of politicians and other dignitaries, as personal bodyguards. In retrospect, many of those with whom he had business dealings believed that he had known that his shady deals would eventually catch up with him, and that when they did he wanted to be protected by the best and most capable bodyguards.
Thanos Papalexis
Thanos Papalexis
It was not long before he ventured south to Miami Beach where he rented Casa Casuarina, the £2 million home that had been previously owned by murdered designer Gianni Versace. There, too, he threw lavish parties which socialites such as Paris Hilton and designers, including Valentino Garavani, attended, according to the London Evening Standard. On one occasion he even hosted a fundraiser there for Hillary Clinton which was attended by her husband and former president Bill Clinton, according to The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.
He was frequently seen driving around Palm Beach in either a Bentley convertible or a Lamborghini, and although he was married he engaged regularly in orgies and pornography. The college drop-out set up a number of questionable businesses as he attracted and surrounded himself with some of the wealthiest people in America. Although he eventually became known as an ambitious entrepreneur, Papalexis betrayed no awareness that Scotland Yard considered him as a prime suspect in the murder of Christodoulides. It seemed Papalexis believed that he had escaped scrutiny in the investigation. The always impeccably dressed charmer continued to impress a lot of people, many of whom considered him a Gatsby-like genius.
"He could sell sunglasses to a blind man," one of his former associates said. "The man is a genius when it comes to vocal skills."
Scotland Yard detectives, though, continued to quietly build their case against him. During the course of the investigation it was discovered that Papalexis had paid thousands of pounds to engage in the aforementioned orgies with prostitutes, and had paid for four of his "girlfriends" to have breast implants.
As he continued to pursue his interests in property development, Papalexis kept fit and reportedly remained health-conscious. He continued to make new friends, including Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, The Daily Telegraph and the Palm Beach Post reported.

VitalLuxury—members only

It did not take long for Papalexis to begin development of an exclusive private club known as VitalLuxury. Papalexis had previously attempted to purchase the historic Helen Wilkes hotel for a similar venture, but the venture failed when he could not raise enough cash to close the deal despite the backing of Mayor Frankel, according to The Daily Telegraph. VitalLuxury attracted wealthy investors almost immediately by the prospect of a high-end resorts pampering guests with the use of executive jets, yachts, and hotel suites typically utilized by celebrities and heads of state. VitalLuxury's promotional material included promises such as the use of a "fleet of limousines that will gracefully allow you to explore every destination or travel between destinations and ensure your schedules are always adhered to." One brochure promised to provide "a range of luxuries previously only known to billionaires and royalty." The cars that were promised in the advertisements were to have been Bentley Flying Spurs, or 4x4s for travel to mountain retreats. Papalexis also promised members that guests could fly in executive jets for the members-only price of $1,500 per hour. It turned out that the venture was "a scam," as described by a former employee.
Thanos Papalexis
Thanos Papalexis
"We were all manipulated; we were all suckered," the former employee told the London Evening Standard. "He had multi-millionaires coming in. We had people investing three, four, five million dollars. Thanos was paying himself $350,000 a year minimum."
The former employee told the newspaper said that he realized the venture was a scam when Papalexis wrote a $15,000 bad check for the rental of the Versace mansion.
"As Thanos left the party, he said, 'Bye. Tell them we'll take care of the bill. Someone will call,'" the former employee recalled. "But every check he wrote bounced."
One of the executive aircraft for VitalLuxury turned out to be the only aircraft, and it was not a jet. Instead, it was a 1983 eight-passenger Cessna and was, at the time of VitalLuxury, grounded at a remote landing strip most of the time because of engine and other mechanical problems. When it was in the air, passengers could hear wind "whistling" through holes in the seal around the aircraft's door, and the interior was described as "shabby." It did not take long for investors to begin demanding their money back, and soon Papalexis was being chased by creditors who claimed he owed them more than $2 million. One of the creditors pursuing him was the owner of the beachfront mansion where Papalexis lived: the owner claimed that Papalexis was not paying the mortgage.

Detective Inspector Brent Hyatt

D.I. Brent Hyatt
D.I. Brent Hyatt
While Papalexis was living large in Florida, Detective Inspector Brent Hyatt of Scotland Yard had entered the case and was quietly building a case against the so-called developer. Known as a maverick investigator who fancied paisley ties, Hyatt had a mind of his own and sometimes marched to the beat of a different drummer. That is not to say that he did not follow the rule of law; he just liked to do things his own way. He said he had felt "compelled" to solve the case of Christodoulides' murder the moment he began working on it.
"The more baffling, the more interesting I tend to find it," Hyatt recalled. "But there was something else. So many murder victims are themselves caught up in crime these days, yet in this case the victim was a wholly innocent man who had been killed in his own home. That got to me. And the only one with both access to the property and a clear motive to kill him was Papalexis, a man whose wealth and connections should have taught him better."
Admitting that he had needed a lucky break to solve the case, Hyatt received it in May 2003 when Ylli Xhelo, 36, an Albanian builder, was arrested for possession of marijuana inside a London tube station in a routine bust. Xhelo was released soon after his arrest and disappeared, but his DNA had been obtained during the arrest. After processing, his DNA came back as a positive match to that obtained from cigarette butts found at the scene of Christodoulides' murder. Unfortunately, by the time the match was made police had no idea where Xhelo had gone. Nonetheless, Hyatt decided to keep the information low-key; there was no sense in letting others know that the cops were on to them.


Robert Baxhija
Robert Baxhija
Nearly three years passed without an arrest, but Hyatt continued to patiently work the case even though his superiors tried a number of times to close the file. The next break came in 2006 when another Albanian, Robert Baxhija, was also randomly arrested for possession of marijuana. Like Xhelo, Baxhija was released from police custody soon after his arrest, but, unlike Xhelo, Baxhija was deported. Baxhija's DNA matched the other DNA found at the scene of Christodoulides' murder. It was very frustrating for Hyatt and the other investigators who worked on the case, but they persevered and refused to close the books.
Despite having been deported, Baxhija subsequently legally reentered the U.K. via a marriage visa. When Hyatt and his team learned of Baxhija's return, they obtained his current address from the immigration department and kept him under close surveillance as part of an operation that they hoped would lead them to Xhelo, who they believed was still in the U.K. Their efforts paid off, despite it taking nearly two more years. In March 2008, Baxhija and Xhelo met each other and were subsequently arrested in a van after being stopped by Hyatt's team on the A10, the north-south highway connecting London with Cambridge. Xhelo and Baxhija appeared at the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on March 15, 2008, and were charged with Christodoulides' murder. Both men initially denied any involvement in the murder, but later admitted to cleaning up the crime scene and disposing of Christodoulides' body for Papalexis. Hyatt had previously obtained cell phone records showing that Xhelo, Baxhija and Papalexis had been at the warehouse on the day of the murder from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Despite the evidence mounting against Papalexis, including the fact that the two Albanians had implicated him, Hyatt waited to make his move, in part because Papalexis was out of the country and it took additional time for him to get everything needed to bring Papalexis back to England into position.
Thanos Papalexis
Thanos Papalexis
Once ready to make the arrest, Hyatt learned that Papalexis was visiting the Bahamas and Hyatt was forced to wait until Papalexis returned to Palm Beach. Finally, on November 7, 2008, while Papalexis was dining at the Fire Rock Cafe with an attractive woman, U.S. marshals calmly approached his table, read him his rights, and arrested him for Christodoulides' murder eight years earlier. Papalexis was extradited to the U.K. on December 7, 2008, and met by officers from the Homicide and Serious Crime Command upon his arrival at London's Heathrow Airport. He was charged with murder later that day and held in custody pending trial.
In a case in which there had been initially few leads and no known suspects, Hyatt and his team of investigators with the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) would eventually amass more than 1,000 exhibits from the crime scene in an investigation which amassed forensics costs in excess of £250,000 before nailing the men who murdered Christodoulides in cold blood.
"This investigation should serve to remind those that commit murder in London that they should not rest easily," Hyatt said. "The MPS will relentlessly pursue them until they are placed before the courts to answer for their crimes."

A damning confession

Rebecca DeFalco
Rebecca DeFalco
Upon learning of Papalexis' arrest, former hardcore porn star and high-end prostitute Rebecca DeFalco, 41, who had been one of Papalexis' "girlfriends," contacted Hyatt about a confession she claimed that Papalexis had made in her presence. She explained to Hyatt, and later in court in London's Old Bailey, that she had met Papalexis after he responded to an Internet advertisement for an escort in April 2004, and ended up paying her up to £1,500 (nearly $2,500 at that time) for sex. He boasted that he worked as a spy for the British and U.S. governments, and characterized himself as a "James Bond" type who carried out assignments for MI6, the CIA, and the NSA. He also belonged to an online sadomasochistic group which, she said, helped him with his "insatiable" appetite for sex. She said that Papalexis paid her to engage in sexual encounters with other men while he watched and filmed them. Papalexis wooed her with champagne, roses, and money, and DeFalco said that their relationship had lasted three months and had become "turbo-charged" when it became obvious that she had fallen "under his spell." She said that she ended up breaking "all the rules" for Papalexis before their relationship ended.
On one occasion, while they were staying at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palm Beach, DeFalco and Papalexis got into a heated argument. At one point she asked him if he had ever killed anyone, and he reportedly told her, "Yes, I strangled someone. This man was giving me problems." DeFalco claimed that he had admitted to murdering a "nobody" because he "got in the way."
"I was fooled," DeFalco said. "I was mesmerized, and I was charmed. Every part of me and all of my senses were completely involved. I fell hard. I was taken for a ride...completely smitten."

The mistress

Marie-Helene Jarry
Marie-Helene Jarry
Hyatt also learned of another woman with whom Papalexis had been involved: Canadian-born Marie-Helene Jarry. Jarry, a former retail worker who had been married to an investment banker until their divorce in 2001, had been Papalexis' mistress for approximately two years and was the woman dining with him when he was arrested. Believing his promises that he would divorce his wife, Karina, and marry her, Jarry was devastated when she discovered that Papalexis had forged her signature to pay a £2,000 rental car bill for Karina. Later, Papalexis asked Jarry to pay the rent on Karina's house. When Papalexis was arrested and extradited to the U.K., it was just more than Jarry could take. She began drinking heavily and was found dead in her upscale Riviera Beach, Fla., apartment more than a year after Papalexis' arrest. Some people, including her ex-husband, believed she died of a broken heart, but official reports indicated that she died from alcohol poisoning.
"I blame Papalexis for the death of Marie," her ex-husband told The Daily Telegraph. "He is to blame, no doubt about that. He took her in and then left her with nothing...when she found out what he was really like and how he had ruined her life, she turned to drink....In the years I was married to her she was not a drinker, but from meeting Papalexis that changed. She was in love. She believed in all the things he told her. She thought they were going to get married....The guy was a fraud and Marie-Helene was just a poor kid who got sucked into the glitz and glamour of the life he led."
According to her ex-husband, Jarry's parents traveled from Canada to Florida and found letters in which she detailed some of the things Papalexis had done and how "he had ripped her off."


Papalexis' trial at London's Old Bailey began in June 2009 for the calculated, coldblooded murder of Charalambos Christodoulides before Judge Jeremy Roberts. All of the evidence implicating Papalexis and his two accomplices was heard by the court, including testimony from Hyatt, other investigators and, of course, Rebecca DeFalco, among others. Damning details of Christodoulides being tied to a chair, beaten, tortured and strangled inside his home were given in evidence and testimony. It was perhaps DeFalco's testimony of Papalexis' purported confession that was the most damaging. At one point, Papalexis took the witness stand and told the court that much of what he had told DeFalco was merely part of an elaborate fantasy in which he had engaged during the course of their sexual relationship.
"I wanted her to feel loved and to feel that I was a super-spy and that we would have great sex and great fun together," Papalexis testified. "I have regaled her with stories which would make a screenwriter envious, but I have never mentioned anything to do with this murder. I told her about missions, explosions, car chases, gun battles in the desert, stories that you would see in a movie but nothing to do with the murder of a...gentleman in a warehouse in London."
Before he finished presenting his case against Papalexis to the court, prosecutor Jonathan Laidlaw spelled out the motive for Christodoulides' murder.
"It appears that the victim was condemned to die for no better reason than he was not prepared to leave his home," Laidlaw said. "Papalexis, whilst from a wealthy family, was in a perilous financial position. It was his first major project and the venture had gone disastrously wrong. As pressure mounted, Mr. Papalexis looked at other ways of raising money to save himself."
Judge Jeremy Roberts
Judge Jeremy Roberts
Perhaps in an effort to underscore Papalexis' unsavory character, Laidlaw explained that after DeFalco resumed e-mail contact with the defendant before his arrest and told him that she had cancer, Papalexis had simply replied, "Bon voyage."
Following a lengthy trial, Papalexis was found guilty of murder in September 2009 and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Papalexis' likely release date was shown in legal documents as September 25, 2029.
"You found yourself with a serious problem," Judge Roberts said at sentencing. "You decided to take a life of a harmless and innocent human must have realized what happened, if it became known, would have scuppered the deal. He could not be allowed to are a totally amoral person in the sense that you do not think twice in doing or saying anything which helps you achieve your own ends....This was an execution carried out for financial gain—you treat Charalambos as completely expendable."
"I hope this verdict goes some way to achieving justice for Charalambos and closure for his family," Hyatt said after the trial. "For nine years they suffered enormously knowing that no one had been held accountable for his murder. Despite their pain, they have patiently and wholeheartedly supported this investigation, behaving with great dignity throughout. I thank them for the support they have given me and the officers involved in this investigation."
In February 2010, Ylli Xhelo and Robert Baxhija were found guilty of murder in Christodoulides' death, following the inability of a jury to reach a verdict in earlier proceedings. Judge Roberts sentenced Xhelo to 17 years to life, with a likely release date of February 11, 2027. Roberts sentenced Baxhija to 15 years to life, with a likely release date of February 11, 2025.


Daily Mail
Evening Standard
Metropolitan Police Service, London
Palm Beach Daily News
The Daily Telegraph
The Guardian
The Palm Beach Post
The Sun
Times Online


No comments:

Post a Comment