Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Tuesday, 29 September 2009 11:50 UK

Living life in disguise

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Six people have now been convicted in connection with Britain's biggest robbery. Michelle Hogg, who started off as a defendant, became the most crucial witness - but what toll has it taken upon her?

At the beginning of 2006, Michelle Hogg was living a quiet life.

Hair Hectik in Forest Hill, south London
Miss Hogg worked at this salon on south London

She worked at a hair salon in south London, lived in a small flat in Plumstead and occasionally supplemented her meagre income with hair and make-up work at weddings.

The 34-year-old had once worked at Selfridges but the stress of sales targets in the cosmetics department proved too much for her and she took a pay cut to join the salon, hoping to begin a new career as a hairdresser.

Everything changed one day in January 2006 when her boss, Michael Demetris, asked her to do a special make-up job for one of the salon's regular customers - cagefighter Lee Murray.

Mr Demetris, who was acquitted of all charges last month, told the Old Bailey he believed the job was linked to Murray's cagefighting career and a martial arts computer game.

Miss Hogg, a policeman's daughter, said Murray and some of his friends came to her flat and moulds were taken so she could make bald caps and prosthetic noses and chins.

After the robbery in February 2006 she was arrested and later charged. In police interviews she said she had been unaware of the purpose of the disguises beforehand and too scared to reveal the names of those involved.

Nervous breakdown

Miss Hogg, who had suffered a nervous breakdown since being charged, began the first trial accused of being an integral part of the conspiracy, but was freed on bail.

Clearly nervous and upset, she was granted permission to sit in the well of the court rather than in the dock with her co-defendants.

Four months into the trial she suddenly switched sides.

She agreed to turn Queen's evidence and testify against her former co-defendants. In return the prosecution dropped all charges against her.

She's the biggest drama queen I have ever come across
Paul Allen

Michelle Hogg was a key witness in the first trial and her powerful testimony, corroborated by mobile phone and DNA evidence, helped secure the convictions of five men in January this year.

Moved away

She was enrolled in a witness protection scheme, which involved changing her name and relocating her to another part of the country far from her native London.

For a woman who had lived in the same corner of the capital for 34 years it was clearly a huge shock to the system.

When she returned eight months later to give evidence at the second trial - of Paul Allen and Michael Demetris - she herself wore a bizarre disguise.

She donned a large black wig, which covered most of her face and Groucho Marx-style glasses.

Paul Allen's lawyer, Ian Glen QC, even asked her if she was wearing a prosthetic nose, to which she replied with gusto: "Would you like to come and look at me closely? Of course not."

Allen later described her as "the biggest drama queen I have ever come across".

Accused of lying

Defence lawyers in both of the robbery trials suggested she had lied and changed facts to suit her story.

It was suggested to her she had implicated Mr Demetris out of spite, because she blamed him for introducing her to Murray in the first place.

Joel Bennathan QC, for Mr Demetris, put it to her quite directly that she was blatantly lying about her role in the robbery.

Some of the paraphernalia used by Michelle Hogg
Michelle Hogg dumped her materials when she heard of the robbery

He said: "By now, from what you say, you clearly hate Mr Demetris?"

"No. I don't have any feelings at all about him. I just feel extremely numb and betrayed," she replied, but admitted she had described him as "evil" and "a worm".

She said: "He duped and misled me and dragged me into it. I wouldn't have been part of something like this. I have a heart and a soul and a conscience."

Mr Bennathan pointed out several apparent inconsistencies in her story.

One of these was her claim that she had watched the early evening news on the day after the robbery and had heard a reference to fake moustaches.

Mr Bennathan said there had in fact been no mention of disguises until much later, but Miss Hogg insisted: "Well, I know what I heard and there was something about false moustaches."

She was due to give evidence at Allen's retrial but has now been spared that ordeal.

Despite Allen's conviction, Miss Hogg will have to stay in hiding for many years to come, partly because key members of the gang remain at large and may not wish her to testify against them if they are eventually brought to trial.

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