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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 in cash.

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 Rabat.

"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