The death of a material boy

The Guardian, February 6 1994

Several months before he disappeared, Andrew Elphick sat down with his friend, Sasha Westcourt, in the house they shared on the edge of a neat little village in Surrey, and the two of them wrote out their ambitions in life. Westcourt jotted down a few lines about health and happiness and a steady income, but Elphick filled a whole page with his plans, which he spelled out step by step in capital letters.

Within 90 days, he would clear his overdraft, pay off his credit card bills, and reward himself with a dinner party organised by professional caterers. Within nine months, he would have a new wardrobe, a new car, holidays in Singapore and the South of France, and he would reward himself with a weekend on the Orient Express with the girlfriend of his choice. Within five years, he wrote, he wanted a different suit for every day of the week, a private account at all the best restaurants, a £30,000 Porsche 911 Carrera, a helicopter, a six-bedroom house in the poshest part of Surrey with a pool, a gym and a tennis court, and a 40-foot yacht moored on the French Riviera.

Westcourt was impressed. He knew these were not just day dreams, his friend meant it, and over the next few months, he watched as Elphick threw himself into his future. Looking back now, Westcourt can see the clues that something was wrong, that Elphick was starting to play some dangerous games. But it was only later, when Elphick’s car was found abandoned on a run-down housing estate, when days passed into weeks and there was still no sign of him, when the police started digging up his back garden and dredging a lake in search of his body, it was only then that Westcourt started piecing together the picture.

Two years later, the truth is finally emerging about the baffling mystery of Andrew Elphick’s disappearance. Westcourt has given police new information, and detectives have begun to uncover the story of a brash 21-year-old who grew up to believe that money was the root of all life, who was prepared to do almost anything to fulfill his desperate ambition. It is a cautionary tale for the 1990s, the story of the rise and fall of a material boy.

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Andrew Elphick came from a solid, middle-class home. His father, Albert, was an executive with Court’s, the furnishing business, and the family lived well in a detached house with a new car in the drive each year. He went to St Peter’s Roman Catholic state school in Merrow just outside Guildford. He was good at games, not so good at lessons, always determined to do well and more and more sure that he wanted to follow his father into the world of business.

If success had been easy, Andrew Elphick might now be ordering his yacht, but when he left school at 16 with six O levels to his name, he found himself stuck on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder, working as a shop assistant in a store in Guildford. For five years, he climbed but his progress was slow and by the beginning of 1991, his real life was lagging far behind his image.

He always looked good. He worked out with weights, he dressed with care, he drove a brand new Vauxhall Nova GTE. At weekends, he liked to stay late at Braggs nightclub in Guildford, swapping laughs with those he envied, showing off his new girlfriend, feeling sharp, looking good. But almost every item of his precious lifestyle belonged to someone else.

The cash was borrowed from the bank, the car was on HP, the clothes were borrowed from a menswear shop in Barnet where he was now working as manager, his tastes were borrowed from glossy colour advertisements – brandy at the end of the evening, music from Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Connick Jr. Even his wealthy girlfriend was borrowed. She was married to someone else, whose large wallet was funding their affair.

He kept reaching for his future, but when he and Sasha Westcourt sat down to plan their lives in the spring of 1991, the recession was deep and nothing they tried seemed to work out. Their first big scheme was ironing boards – guitar-shaped ones, which were going to sweep through the country, knocking their old-fashioned rivals out of the market.

They set up their own marketing company, they wrote up projections and worked out their profit, they went off to see the bank manager and ran up a loan, they approached department stores and hardware chains and filled the front room with ironing boards waiting to be sold, and then they watched in frustration as it all came to nothing. Harrods said they might be interested. Argos said they’d keep their letter on file. The two young entrepreneurs started getting up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to try and sell them on a market stall, but even that didn’t work.

They tried perfume. They went to a conference of scent salesmen at the Hilton Hotel in London and they heard how some of these people were earning five or six thousand a month. They learned the Seven Steps to Success and went out to recruit their own sales force, advertised in local newspapers, pushed leaflets through likely letterboxes, handed out more in Guildford High Street, phoned pubs and clubs and restaurants and watched in despair as it all failed to take off. Then they tried water filters, but not for long.

As his dreams eluded him, Elphick’s luck began to turn sour. The menswear shop in Barnet discovered that he was borrowing their clothes and also that he was borrowing cash from the till. He was sacked and prosecuted and sentenced to Community Service. He managed to talk his way into another job, with Moss Bros in Woking, but his income had dropped lower than ever, and his father had to pay off his debts. He crashed his car and got another on HP. His CD player was stolen. So was one of his credit cards. Then he vanished.

Sasha Westcourt last saw him on a Friday evening, August 23 1991. Elphick had been hanging around the house all afternoon, tanning on the sun bed, waiting for a phone call. He seemed irritable and when he left at about half past eight that evening, he wouldn’t say where he was going. At ten o’clock the next morning, police in Slough found a group of children standing around a smart car which seemed to have been abandoned. The sun roof was open, the keys were in the ignition, a filofax was lying on the backseat, but there was no sign of a driver. It was Andrew Elphick’s new Vauxhall Nova.

Surrey police sent the car to the forensic science lab at Aldermaston, where they found it was spotless: no hairs, no fibres, no prints, nothing. They took a call from an Asian man who said Andrew’s body was by a lake near Slough. They searched the area and dredged the lake and found nothing. They knocked on every door on the housing estate where the car was abandoned and did the same in the village where Elphick had lived in Surrey, but no one knew anything. They searched the house, combed through his private papers, dug up the garden and the near-by fields, appealed for help on BBC’s Crimewatch, and still they came up with nothing more than hints of the truth.

Detectives found that a fortnight before he vanished, Elphick had made a mysterious phone call in the early hours of the morning, apologising to someone he was supposed to have met, but they couldn’t find out who it was. They discovered he had fiddled the paperwork on his new car and cheated a finance house out of £6,000, all of which he had drawn out of the bank ten days before he vanished, but they couldn’t find out why. They heard he had dropped hints about a big deal he was planning, but they couldn’t find out what it was. And they were sure that someone had been using his missing credit card to run up bills in local stores, but they didn’t know who. All they had was a fistful of loose ends.

They could not even be quite sure that he was dead. There was no trace of a body, nor any sign of blood or any report of violence. They thought of kidnap, but there was no ransom demand. They thought of suicide, but there was no motive. They thought long and hard about whether Elphick had deliberately disappeared and, although it seemed highly unlikely that he would desert his friends and his family, they could not be sure. Then, a few weeks ago, Sasha Westcourt decided to speak up.

Westcourt went to Surrey police and told them he had been frightened to talk to them before but he had thought hard about it and he believed there were several things that they needed to know. He told them there were two men who had become very friendly with Elphick in the few months before he vanished. They were only young but they seemed to have a lot of money and they had bragged openly about crimes they had committed.

They said they could ‘disappear’ people’s cars – arrange for them to be stolen and sold, split the money with the owner and then split the insurance as well. They said they knew heavy criminals, including some who could get people ‘bumped off’. They had often sat around their kitchen table talking about scams they were planning and, although Westcourt had thought they were just boasting, Andrew Elphick had been fascinated by them.

Westcourt told police that he was sure that it was these men who had ‘stolen’ Elphick’s CD player, so that they could sell it together and share the insurance. He knew it was them who had helped Elphick to cheat a finance company out of £6,000 on his new car. And he had heard them offering Elphick money if he would let them ‘steal’ his credit card. But what was most important was that he had heard them boasting about how their big time criminal friends could set up drug deals.

He recalled how he had been watching television with Elphick one night and something on the screen had prompted his friend to say: “Drugs. There’s a good profit margin in drugs, you know.” Westcourt knew that Elphick had never touched drugs in his life; he was far too health-conscious. So he shrugged off the remark. Now, he said, he was sure that Elphick had been having meetings with his two criminal friends, that he had been phoning one of them in his unexplained call.

He had known at the time about the £6,000 which Elphick was raising on his car, but he had not realised what it was for. Elphick had told him that they would use the money for their business, to buy stocks of perfume, and Westcourt recalled how he had kept asking when this money was going to come through and Elphick had kept telling him that it was on its way, that it would arrive soon. Now, Westcourt realised that his friend had been lying to him: the money had arrived already, Elphick had drawn it all out in cash and, he now believed, invested the lot in a criminal deal, almost certainly involving drugs, using some contact provided by Elphick’s new friends.

In all probability, he had simply been funding the deal. He had no contacts through which to sell drugs himself, so he would have invested his money on the promise of a quick and generous return. If it had worked, he could have started to buy his dreams. As it was, it appeared that he had been cheated and had simply had his £6,000 stolen. If he had then threatened to go to the police, he would have provoked a violent reaction.

“They knew he wasn’t really streetwise,” Westcourt says now, “and they could manipulate him. Andrew wanted to make a lot of money. That was his downfall, this drive for success through whatever means. He was desperate for money. He wanted to impress his girlfriend by having money. He thought he could make his father proud of him. I think he got into something which was completely over his head.

“After Andrew disappeared, I was pretty worried that it was the drugs underworld and they would come and get me and I didn’t want to cause trouble for my family, so I didn’t say anything. It was pretty traumatic for me at the time. I think I had a bit of a breakdown. I don’t think Andrew is with us any more. I would like to think he has done a runner, but there was no reason for him to just run off. Things weren’t that bad. There is not a day goes by that I do not think of him. I don’t think I ever will get over it.”

Elphick’s father, Albert, who is now based in Singapore, has hired a private detective and offered a £15,000 reward for news of his son. He still believes Andrew may be alive somewhere. “He and I were always pretty close and I saw him ten days before he disappeared when I was over on holiday, and he seemed fine. I don’t believe he is dead. My attitude is that if he was dead, then we would have found a body by now. But if it comes down to the question of drugs, I have to say that I don’t know. I have been reluctant to believe this but I don’t know.”

The policeman in charge of the search, Detective Inspector John Cobbett, has never given up and he is now pursuing Westcourt’s information. “I have always kept open this little percentage in the back of my mind, that he has gone off somewhere,” he said, “but the longer it goes on without any sign of him, the less likely I think it is that we will find him alive”.