‘A self-imagined devil - an emissary of Beelzebub’

WHEN the south coast home of a rabbi was firebombed as he slept upstairs with his wife and six children, police immediately suspected an anti-Semitic attack.

They were wrong. The rabbi, from the seaside town of Hove, had made the mistake of crossing the property developer Nicholas van Hoogstraten.

Van Hoogstraten claimed he was owed 2,000 by the religious leader, so sent his thugs round - to lob a hand grenade through his downstairs window.

That was back in the 1960s, when the tycoon owned a mere 350 properties in Sussex. Already a millionaire, he was fast gaining a reputation as a feudal landlord and gangster. He would buy freeholds to blocks of flats with sitting tenants. Then he would "persuade" them to leave and buy the properties at knockdown prices.

At his trial for the firebombing, in 1968, the judge described him as "a sort of self-imagined devil who thinks he is an emissary of Beelzebub".

After his four-year spell in prison, he never looked back. He boasted that he "ran" Wormwood Scrubs prison - and has never shown any remorse. His only regret, he once said, was that he didn’t go round himself and "cut his [the rabbi’s] b*****s off".

It was while in Long Lartin jail, in Gloucestershire, that he met the armed robber Robert Knapp - one of the hitmen who later was to murder Mohammed Raja, another business associate who he claimed owed him money.

Since then he has notched up a string of criminal convictions, the nature of which give an insight into his flagrant disregard for his tenants, their property and the law.

In 1968, he also received three years for eight counts of handling stolen goods. He was released in 1972, but was then accused of bribing prison officers to take him luxuries. He was sentenced to 15 months but later freed on appeal. The same year, he was fined for forcible entry and conspiracy to cause damage.

Seven years later he was fined 200 for punching and kicking a bailiff. In the 1980s, he was cleared of harassing tenants, but fined 1,500 for contempt after he said of the judge: "I’ll get him in ten years time." In 1999, during his long-standing battle to keep ramblers off his land, he was fined for threatening the opposition barrister: "You dirty bastard ... in due course, you are going to have it."

As van Hoogstraten was found guilty of manslaughter yesterday, few of his former tenants in Brighton and Hove shed any tears. A misanthrope who despised his tenants along with "99 per cent of humanity", van Hoogstraten’s bully-boy tactics included sending in savage dogs.

At times he has deprived them - even the residents of one old people’s home - of heating and lighting. The appalling conditions of his let properties - one neighbour described one block of flats as "a horrendous slum, worthy of Dickens" - stand in sharp contrast to his own.

Before his arrest for the murder of Raja last year, van Hoogstraten was living in the 30 million Baroque mansion East Sussex locals have nicknamed Xanadu.

The copper-domed Hamilton Palace, he designed as a mausoleum and gallery for his priceless art collection. It was the largest house built in Britain for a century, but lies unfinished after the contractors, Penrose Construction, walked out. They are suing for 407,000 in unpaid fees.

Disdainful of humanity in general, van Hoogstraten keeps a little extra in reserve for women, including his mother whom he "had to bash around" for money.

Women are chosen for their child-rearing skills and their compliant natures. He has a string of illegitimate children; at least five by three different mothers, one Nigerian, one Ghanaian and one, his ex-wife, from the Ivory Coast.

He also installs mistresses in the homes he owns all over the world, including Cap Ferrat, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Maryland and Florida. One girlfriend, a 17-year-old from Botswana, he said, "was given to me by her father".

His former wife, Agnes Gnoumou, 37, has denounced him as a cruel, callous chauvinist. They met in Cannes, in 1991, where he wooed her with fabulous presents and expensive meals. Within six days of giving birth to their son by emergency Caesarean, he demanded she shop and cook for him. He then divorced her, demanding that she sign over power of attorney. She now lives in a one-bedroom flat with their five-year-old son, Orrie, on the French Riviera, on an allowance of 800 a month.

The sayings of Nicholas Van Hoogstraten

ON WOMEN

"Women are responsible for the decline of the British Empire and we should never have given them the vote."

ON WIVES

"Like all ex-wives, mine is a raving lunatic, which is one reason I no longer have anything to do with her."

ON WEALTH

"It’s relative ... the thing is, whatever one has, it’s not enough, without sounding greedy. Even if one has 500 million, it doesn’t go very far."

ON BUSINESS

"I am probably ruthless and probably violent. I go for direct personal retribution. I deal with people in cold blood, not hot blood."

ON VIOLENCE

"Everyone can be brought to the point of violence, depending on the circumstances. One keeps one’s insurance policies up to date.

"Obviously we have people to call on when things need doing from time to time."

ON THE LEGAL ESTABLISHMENT

In the 1980s, he was fined for threatening Judge Michael Hyam telling him: "I will get you in ten years."

Hoogstraten later explained: "I was very, very irate."

ON TENANTS

Speaking of "difficult" tenants who refuse to be bought out: "There are other ways of making them go - from taking the roof off or making sure they have a nasty accident going along the road."

ON CHILDREN

"I don’t believe in inherited wealth. I will leave my children a few million so they won’t starve. But I have seen people who think the world owes them a living. I believe everyone should do something useful."

ON CHILDBIRTH

When challenged about his response - "My expensive carpet! Don’t make a mess" - to the imminent birth of his son, Orrie, as his wife’s waters broke: "It was worth thousands and she practically ruined it."

ON RAMBLERS

"They’re what we call the dirty mac brigade. Very few decent, upright citizens; people who pay their rates, taxes and have a house they own, are anything to do with the Ramblers Association."

ON FAMILY LIFE

"I believe in the old order, which is that the man was the provider and the woman looked after the children and the home. I see more of traditional life and the way things should be in Africa."

ON MUGABE

The most "modest" man he has ever met.

"I entirely agree with what Mugabe has said and done. The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for the Africans."

Later, Mugabe seized many of his farms.