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Friday, June 26, 2009
Lee Murray back in police custody

By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine

Lee Murray, the MMA fighter accused of masterminding a brazen $92 million British bank heist, is back in Moroccan police custody after being freed briefly by that country's Supreme Court, his attorneys in London and Rabat told ESPN.

The move comes as British prosecutors are pressuring Morocco to try Murray for the 2006 robbery.

In a hearing Wednesday, the Moroccan Supreme Court denied Britain's request to have Murray transferred to London from the capital city of Rabat, where he has been jailed since 2007. The court ruled that because the fighter's father was born in Morocco, he has all the rights of a citizen. Since Morocco does not have a formal extradition treaty with the UK, that scuttled the extradition request.

But the Moroccan government now appears willing to invoke a local law that allows foreign prosecutors to try Moroccan citizens for foreign crimes, so long as the trial is held on Moroccan soil.

"Lee was re-arrested because the British authorities have put a formal request to the Moroccan authorities to have Lee tried in Morocco for the robbery," Abdellah Benlamhidi, Murray's attorney in Rabat, told ESPN in an e-mail. "Lee is the hands of the Moroccan police right now."

UK officials refused comment on the latest twist in the headline-grabbing case. In the British county of Kent, where the heist occurred, a police spokesman told ESPN, "We are waiting to receive direction from the Moroccan judiciary as to which direction they would now like to take."

Benlamhidi said that he expects a Moroccan trial to "begin soon." A guilty verdict under Moroccan law could net Murray a maximum sentence of ten years, which is still a fraction of what he could get if convicted in the UK.

In February 2006, robbers posing as cops abducted the manager of a high-security bank warehouse in Tonbridge, Wales, and forced their way inside the building while his wife and son were held at gunpoint. As employees were bound and gagged, seven masked men loaded three waiting trucks with 53 million British pounds in cash (about $92 million.)

Police say about $57 million of the haul is still missing.

Five of the assailants were captured and convicted at trial in London last year. Another alleged accomplice is currently in custody awaiting trial. But British prosecutors say Murray, a former UFC star, was "at the heart" of the plot and claim to have a cell phone recording that shows him planning the heist.

After the robbery, Murray, 31, fled to Morocco and claimed citizenship, living lavishly until he was arrested by police officers in a Rabat mall. After authorities found cocaine in his upscale villa, Murray 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 maximum-security Sale prison while the Supreme Court weighed his request for asylum.

According to Murray's UK attorney, Derek Parker, the Supreme Court's decision denying extradition caught Murray completely by surprise. Parker said Murray thought he was being called to testify as a witness in an unrelated case involving inmate violence.

Murray's professional height came in January 2004, when he fought as "Lightning Lee" 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 veteran Jorge Rivera in just 1:45, sparking talk that he could be MMA's next big star. But legal troubles in the UK prevented him from entering the U.S. after that. And a stabbing outside a London nightclub in 2005 raised questions about whether he would be healthy enough to fight again.

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, he was thwarted when another prisoner broke into his cell, found the saws and informed prison officials. At the time, he was housed in another location as punishment for being caught with a laptop computer and fine clothes. The inmate who found the saws reportedly entered his cell to steal his belongings.

Parker called the alleged escape plot untrue, and on Friday was unable to say where Murray is currently being held.

Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.