THERE are many ways the story of property developer Scot Young could be told. Each one would be complex and tragic; each one would run the gamut of human weaknesses – vanity, greed, jealousy, self-delusion – but none would provide the satisfactory conclusion we demand of a good thriller; none would adequately explain how, at just after 5pm on Monday, a man who once lived a Gatsby-esque style life of unbridled hedonism came to be impaled on iron railings below his fourth-floor flat in Marylebone, London.
To fellow Scottish tycoon Duncan Bannatyne, Young is the hapless victim of other people’s avarice. Defending his friend against all-comers on Twitter, he portrayed Young as a loving father destroyed by a vengeful ex-wife and grasping lawyers who waged a seven-year court battle to get their hands on a fortune he no longer possessed. Young, Bannatyne said, could not pay the sums demanded of him because he was bankrupt – his money apparently lost in a disastrous deal known as Project Moscow – and the relentless attempts to prove otherwise pushed him over the edge. No doubt there is a degree of truth in this.
Young’s wife Michelle, the mother of his two daughters, was dogged in her pursuit of what she believed was rightfully hers, hiring a succession of private detectives to try to trace the hundreds of millions she insisted he had spirited away. Her campaign involving 13 legal teams and a former MI6 agent, and the three months Young spent in jail for failing to provide evidence of his alleged financial meltdown had taken its toll on his mental health. He was sectioned twice and was said to be drinking heavily and behaving erratically in the days before he plummeted to his death.
Then again, we all view the world through the filter of our own experience; Bannatyne has had his own very public and acrimonious divorce complete with lengthy court battle and multi-million settlement so perhaps he, along with some of Young’s other wealthy supporters, is guilty of over-empathising. Certainly, he seems to ignore some major inconsistencies in the Young-as-penniless-pawn narrative, such as the gaps in his accounts of his financial dealings, his continued luxuries (he carried a Louis Vuitton bag into prison), the powerful friends who seemed content to keep bankrolling him, his supposed links to the Russian mafia and his friendship with a handful of other wealthy “fixers” – including exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky – who have also met untimely ends in unusual circumstances.
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Then there is the puzzle of his fiancée – reality TV star Noelle Reno; she and Young had been together for several years, though some claim they split up two weeks before his death. Young made brief appearances with her in four episodes of Bravo’s Ladies Of London. In one, she described an apartment they viewed together as “smelling like her grandmother’s house” (to refute suggestions she was a gold-digger); in another he was filmed proposing with a six-carat diamond ring. But why would someone who had been so badly stung by his ex-wife team up with a woman who previously brought a £30m lawsuit against former boyfriend Matthew Mellon (scion of the American banking dynasty and ex-husband of Jimmy Choo founder Tamara)? Was Reno really interested only in the balding 51-year-old’s personality or did she suspect he had hidden millions out of the reach of the courts? And did Young’s predilection for younger blondes blind him to the possibility she might be after his money, or was he using her as a “cash courier” (a claim made in court, which she vehemently denied)?
Trying to plot the trajectory of Young’s rise from unremarkable schoolboy to property and telecoms tycoon is itself a mystery tour. Delving into his affairs is like opening a Japanese trick box; every door slides back to reveal more doors and secret compartments, all of which are empty of answers.
He was brought up in a tenement flat in Clepington Street, an unremarkable area of Dundee in the shadow of Tannadice. The son of former Dundee United player Duncan Young and his wife Betsy, who have kept a low profile during the dramatic events of the past few years, he left school with few qualifications.
Nothing much more is known about Young until he hooked up with Michelle in 1989; just setting out in the property business, he wasn’t yet wealthy and they began their married life in her parents’ home in Upminster in Essex. Described as charismatic and assertive, with an entrepreneurial streak, he tapped into her father’s business contacts and soon the millions started to roll in. In court, Michelle said her husband was always secretive about his financial affairs, but she seems to have been quite happy to spend his money.
Young’s first big break came in 1997, when he purchased a 50% share in Dione, a company involved in chip and pin machines. The other 50% was purchased by a Finnish-born, London-based billionaire property developer called Poju Zabludowicz, who was a donor to David Cameron’s leadership campaign for the Conservative Party. It was then that the couple bought their first palatial home – Woodperry House in Oxfordshire – which they used as collateral to buy further homes and eventually sold for £13m. Their wealth mounted as Young invested in oil, gas and telecoms businesses, and it has been suggested that by 2002 he was worth at least £312m.
During the divorce case, their lifestyle during those years was presented as one long parody of excess: the private jets, the holidays in Barbados, the Cartier watches for his daughters, the weekly Harrods food shop. Although the judge believed some of Michelle’s claims were overstated (he disputed the £1m price tag she attached to Graff jewellery she received for her 40th birthday and said he thought it would be impossible to spend £1m a year on dining out), it was clear they were very rich indeed and that they mingled with the famous and powerful. Simon Cowell, Sir Philip Green and Richard Caring were among their high-profile friends.
In 2006, however, everything changed. Just as their relationship began to fracture, Young got involved in a business deal which has been dubbed alternately Project Moscow and Project Marriage Walk. According to Young, the £65 million redevelopment of a former paint factory site in the Russian capital imploded, leaving him owing £28m to multiple creditors who had invested in the deal. Now penniless, he could not afford to pay maintenance to his wife and daughters, who were living in reduced circumstances (albeit far from abject poverty).
According to Michelle, however, Project Moscow was a sham cooked up so Young could move his fortune to secret offshore accounts. The evidence presented to support this was incredibly complex and mostly inconclusive. For example, the court heard £6m from Project Moscow was siphoned off to an offshore entity called SY Refinance Foundation controlled by corporate lawyer Stephen Jones of Jirehouse Capital, though Young claimed the £6m was used to pay off other creditors, unrelated to Project Moscow. An accountant said he had been unable to trace the proceeds from the sale of Dione, the chip and pin company, and there were suggestions someone had seen a Post-it note in which Young had talked about making £3bn from Facebook shares. The overall impression was of dodgy deals and obfuscation. Particularly suspicious was the way in which wealthy friends continued to give him large sums of money despite claiming to be creditors.
After his spell in jail failed to elicit any further clarification about his financial status, Mr Justice Moor ruled Young should pay £20m (compared with the £400m his ex-wife was seeking). He said Young was worth £45m, that he owned properties in other people’s names and that the “wads of cash” being handed to him by friends came from his own hidden resources in part held for him by third parties. He also criticised the couple for engaging in a public dispute which must have had a devastating impact on their daughters. By now, the cost of the legal case had run into tens of millions, of which Young was ordered to pay £6m. Michelle who branded the settlement a disgrace, never saw a penny of it, and in June said she was looking at pursuing her ex-husband through the insolvency courts.
You might have thought that this undignified scrap for the marital spoils would be as grimy as the Scot Young story could get. Or that the judge’s ruling was proof he had indeed managed to spirit his fortune away. But since his death last week, more details have emerged which casts doubt on all previous assumptions. An anonymous friend has claimed Project Moscow was indeed a scam – but by the Russian mafia to fleece British businessmen.
Speaking to the Telegraph, the source said the deal – orchestrated by Berezovsky, who believed it to be genuine – also involved two other developers, Paul Castle and Robert Curtis, both of whom later threw themselves under Tube trains. Under the terms of the deal, the three put up £140m but were then lent the same amount again by other Russians to double the deposit. When the Russian government pulled the plug, not only was all the money lost, but the businessmen owed tens of millions to the Russian mafia which began to hound them. Castle and Curtis were not the only ones to die: Berezovsky’s body was found in a locked bathroom at his ex-wife Galina’s home with a black scarf tied round his neck, while lawyer Stephen Curtis, said to have introduced Young, Castle and Robert Curtis to the Russians, died in a helicopter crash in 2004 after telling friends he thought his life was in danger. Another businessman linked to Young, Johnny Elichaoff – ex-husband of Trinny Woodall, of Trinny & Susannah fame – last month fell to his death from the roof of Whiteley shopping centre in London (which he had been talked down from once before).
Though all these deaths may indeed be suicides/accidents, the suggestion is some of those involved were being intimidated. It is claimed Young was dangled by his legs out of the window of the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane by gangsters in 2012.
While initially the Metropolitan police said there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding Young’s death, they are under increasing pressure to investigate more deeply. Several people say Young told them he feared for his life and Kremlin-backed Russian media including, Vesti FM radio and official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta are now asking the question: did he jump or was he pushed?
In the midst of all this frenzied speculation, it must be difficult for those who loved Young to find space to grieve. Michelle said she was with their daughters – Scarlet, 21, and Sasha, 19 – and that they’d been “to hell and back”. Reno said she was devastated by the death of her “best friend”.
Others left tributes by the railings included one from a friend of one of Young’s daughters, who said he was an inspiration who had taught him to “never give up”.
But none of those mourning Young have given any real insight into his personality or his motivations. Despite the high-profile court case, the reality TV show and the blizzard of details about his business deals, he remains to all intents and purposes a mystery. With so many contradictory accounts of the events leading up to his final moments, he seems destined to remain as unfathomable in death as he was in life. And to carry the terrible secrets of his vanished millions to the grave.
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