Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Murray's release surprised him, lawyers
By Shaun Assael ESPN The Magazine
Lee Murray, the MMA star accused of masterminding the biggest cash robbery
in history, has been released from a Moroccan prison cell to freedom, his
lawyers in Morocco and London said Wednesday.
The surprise move came after a hearing before the Moroccan Supreme Court in
which a panel of judges upheld Murray's claim that he is a citizen of the
North African nation. British prosecutors were trying to extradite the
fighter on charges that he masterminded the Feb. 22, 2006 robbery of a cash
warehouse on the outskirts of London, making off with a record $92 million
Abdellah Benlamhidi, Murray's Moroccan-based attorney, told ESPN that his
assistant visited the maximum security Sale prison in Morocco's capital city
of Rabat on Wednesday afternoon and was told Murray was gone.
"Lee was freed," he wrote in an e-mail.
Seven masked men with automatic weapons were involved in the 2006
heist, which began when two of the robbers abducted the bank's manager.
After the assailants forced their way into the high-security warehouse, they
loaded the cash into three waiting trucks. Much of the loot was recovered,
but approximately $40 million is still missing.
Five of the assailants were captured and convicted at trial in London last
year. Another alleged accomplice, close Murray friend Paul "The Enfoircer"
Allen, is currently in custody. But British prosecutors consider Murray, a
former UFC star known as "Lightning Lee", the prize.
Calls to Kent police were not returned Wednesday. It is unclear what the
next step for British authorities will be.
After the robbery, Murray fled to Morocco and claimed citizenship because
his father was born there. (His mother is English.) The 31-year-old lived
lavishly until he was arrested by a swarm of 50 polic officers in a Rabat mall.
After police found cocaine in his upscale villa, he was charged with local
drug crimes. In February 2007, a court convicted him and sentenced the
fighter to eight months in lockup. Since then, he has been held at the Sale
prison while the Supreme Court weighed his request for asylum.
According to his UK attorney, Derek Parker, the decision caught Murray
completely by surprise.
"I spoke to him last night and he didn't even know that he was going for a
hearing on the extradition," Parker told The Magazine on Wednesday. "It was
a complete surprise. When he arrived to court, they told him, 'You're a
Moroccan citizen. You can go.' "
Parker said Murray thought he was being called to testify as a witness in an
unrelated case involving inmate violence.
Elated friends of the fighter who were reached in London on Wednesday
evening were still trying to track him down. "All I can tell you is his
messages are going straight to voicemail," said close friend Mark "The
Beast" Epstein. "I want to fly to Rabat to see my mate."
Murray's professional height came in January 2004, when he fought at UFC 46
at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas dressed in a Silence of the Lambs
mask and an orange jumpsuit. He prevailed over the veteran Jorge Rivera
in 1:45, sparking talk that he could be the promotion's next big star. But
legal troubles in the UK prevented him from entering the U.S. after that.
A stabbing outside a London nightclub raised questions about whether he would fight again.
Parker said Murray has been training while in prison and that "he has every
intention of fighting again." But, he said, it would probably have to be in
"I don't think he'll be going back to the UK in our lifetime," Parker said.
"And the U.S. isn't high on his list of vacation destinations either."
Murray's prison tenure has been as colorful as his history in the ring. Last
month, the Wrestling Observer newsletter reported that the fighter tried to
break out of his cell by using tiny saws that were hidden in his food.
According to the publication, was thwarted when another prisoner broke into
his cell, found the saws and informed prison officials.
At the time, he was reportedly serving time in a different cell as
punishment for being caught with a laptop computer and five kilos of drugs.
He also allegedly had access to expensive clothes and fine foods, making him
a target. The prisoner who found the saws had reportedly entered his cell to
steal his belongings.
Parker called the reports "completely untrue." Still, he said one reason for
Murray release may have been that Moroccan authorities "had enough of Mr.
Murray being kept in custody."
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine