Belfast Telegraph

Howell conned out of life savings

Dentist Colin Howell was swindled out of his life savings when he got caught up in a madcap plan to find missing gold in the Pacific which be believed could turn him into a multi-millionaire.

He was conned out of more than £350,000 by a man in the Philippines he had never met before.

Howell had hoped to make between £6 million and £8 million, according to friends. But his life and financial world collapsed in Manila just before Christmas 2008 when he realised he had been duped.

He had used money from the sale of his share of two dental practices in Bangor, Co Down, and Ballymoney, Co Antrim, where he had set up a clinic specialising in implantology. At the time he also faced two big Inland Revenue tax demands.

He was a member of a church group called the Barn Christian Fellowship. The project to find the missing gold in New Guinea was coordinated by an American heavily involved in overseas church missionary work.

Howell planned to spend some of the profit helping to build orphanages and hospitals in India. He believed he would make enough to retire early and share his time between Northern Ireland and Florida, where he had a holiday home.

But six months after making an initial investment there was no sign of the missing treasure he had been promised.

The recovery operation was supposed to be similar to projects going on in the Philippines since the end of the Second World War, where gold was allegedly stashed away in caves and tunnels to fund Japan's war effort. The loot was named after the Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita.

Howell, who had a number of overseas property interests, was told the gold he was seeking was hidden in underground bunkers but the costs involved in bringing the bars to the surface were higher than originally anticipated.

They had been booby trapped, the bunkers filled with poisonous gas and more money was needed, he was told. He was also told there was only another 40 feet of a tunnel to dig to reach the gold.

By that stage he had invested £353,000 and in a desperate bid to raise more capital he approached a number of friends to see if they would be interested in backing the project.

One of them said: "I thought to myself: 'Are these people wise? Are they crazy? But they were dead serious. There was all this hidden gold, but they had put explosives devices around it. There was gas which had to be neutralised. It was all heavily guarded.

"Howell told me he had put in £100,000 and he was going to take out between £6 million and £8 million. They told me the Lord's hand was in this and they were going to get money for doing the Lord's work, funding some sort of missionary exercise. I just chuckled and laughed to myself.

"I asked Colin: 'Who owns this gold? Was it the Japanese? Which government? Was it the landowner? Who owned the titles to the gold? He seemed to be taken aback because it was obvious he hadn't really thought about it."

He added: "It was all supposed to be very secretive, but rather than give an immediate answer I waited and called to tell them I wasn't interested. I wasn't prepared to gamble that sort of money. It was pie in the sky stuff."

Howell then decided to travel to Manila, confident he would get his hands on some of the treasure. But at his hotel when he opened two ammunition boxes expecting to see two gold bars, all he got were a couple of silver dollars and old bank notes worth 30 US dollars.

Howell did not eat or sleep for the 48 hours it took him to get back to Northern Ireland. His wife Kyle and their five children had left Castlerock to spend Christmas in America. He called her and told her of the disastrous investment.

He had planned to follow her out to Florida for a festive break but she immediately ordered him to move out of their luxury house. He went to live in a near deserted caravan park in Castlerock, where he stayed until his arrest in January last year.

Belfast Telegraph

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