Man found with hoards of stolen diamonds in ceiling 'had them for safekeeping'

A wealthy scrap metal dealer who hid stolen diamonds and precious gems in his office ceiling has told a court he was storing them for an acquaintance and unaware of their origin.

Charles Matthews, 55, said he had no idea the haul, which included 50 diamonds and carved emeralds and was worth tens of thousands of pounds, had been illicitly obtained, Southwark Crown Court heard on Tuesday.

The items were discovered at London City Metals in east London during a police search on August 5 2015. They were found to have been stolen from a London jewellers several years previously, the court heard.

The diamonds alone were worth around £48,750; a sapphire, ruby and diamond-encrusted bracelet was valued at 11,160 US dollars at the time, while a pair of emerald earrings was estimated at some 40,110 US dollars, prosecutor Philip Evans QC said.

Matthews, known as "Chick", told jurors he had been given a wooden box just before Christmas in 2014 for safekeeping by a man called James Tibbs, but was unaware what was inside.

He said he had known Mr Tibbs for more than 15 years, knew he traded in jewels and said he had bought a £5,000 watch and earrings from him in the past.

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Giving evidence, Matthews said: "He asked me if he could put it in my safe for the Christmas period and I said 'yes'.

"Many times before he had left items with me and my father before."

But in January the company safe broke, so Matthews then said he transferred the jewellery pieces into a black bag to stash in his ceiling, a practice he had done "many times" before with different items.

Matthews, who wore a dark blue suit jacket, grey trousers, and spectacles, went on: "I had no reason to take James's jewellery home.

"I spoke to James on the telephone and said 'I've got a problem with the safe but I've put it in a safe place on our premises'."

Asked by defence counsel Michael Bromley-Martin QC if he either knew or believed the items to be stolen, he replied: "No, I never."

A diamond-examining kit, including a magnifying glass, found on the site, belonged to his father Charles Matthews senior, he said.

Matthews said he considered the scrapyard secure as it had a 24-hour monitoring system with around 20 CCTV cameras and motion sensors.

A decision was taken to not repair the time-delay safe as the business had gone largely cashless following the 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act, he said.

Before that, he estimated around £50,000 to £100,000 in cash was delivered to the site each day, with the business paying up to £300,000 in cash per week on metals.

Matthews, whose family has been in the scrap metal business since the 1950s, said the company he runs with his brother and son turned over between £10 and £12 million in 2015 and employed some 35 staff.

Matthews, of Virginia Water, Surrey, denies handling goods knowing or believing them to be stolen.