This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Elaine Tappin at home in Kent Peter Nicholls Martin Fletcher for The Times March 9 2012 At the age of 62, the Orpington housewife whose husband Chris languishes in a US jail, has lost her lifelong faith in the British state Elaine Tappin lives in a handsome house on a private estate in Orpington, Kent. There is a Mercedes in the drive and an Audi in the garage. Tall and trim, she receives me in a living room where French windows lead out to a swimming pool. Her home is the embodiment of affluent, suburban, middle-class England — a place where life is safe and orderly and horrible things don’t happen. Except that in Mrs Tappin’s case they have. She has been hit by a calamity of a sort that occurs only in Kafka’s novels, or so she thought. She and her family are suffering what she describes as “incredulity, frustration, heart-rending sadness, despair and utter disbelief”. Two weeks ago her husband, Chris, a 65-year-old retired businessman, was extradited to Texas. Denied bail, he now languishes in a prison full of violent convicts, 5,000 miles from home and facing trial many months hence on arms-trading charges. He protests his innocence, and may or may not be telling the truth. But it is undeniable that during his long battle against extradition he had no chance to challenge the evidence against him in a British court. And he will have none in America, either, unless he takes the high-risk course of rejecting a plea bargain with a short custodial sentence and demanding a proper trial. Mrs Tappin’s contented life in the so-called Garden of England has been shattered. She has lost her husband for the foreseeable future and just possibly — given his age and the nature of US prisons — for ever. “It’s like having half your life taken away from you,” she says.
This diffident, self-effacing wife and mother faces legal bills likely to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, and is preparing to sell the house and the Audi to meet them. Aged 62, she has been propelled into the media spotlight and lost her lifelong faith in the British state for which she once worked as a secretary in MI5. “It’s ruined now,” she says of that faith. “It’s completely gone.” The Government did “absolutely nothing” to protect her husband or to uphold the British sense of justice and fair play against US interests. “I feel no love for my country any more. It’s not the Britain I was born in.” The only silver lining is that Mrs Tappin has risen to the challenge in a way that has astonished even her. She has found a new purpose in life, which is to fight furiously for her husband, and for reform of the controversial US-UK extradition treaty under which he was spirited away. “It’s made me harder and more cynical,” she says. “I’ve found an inner steel. Because Chris isn’t here any more I can’t run to him and ask what to do. I have to make decisions on my own.” Mrs Tappin met her husband when an aunt took her to Sunday lunch at West Kent Golf Club in 1973. He had just won the club championship and was buying champagne. Their first date was a squash game. She did not win a point, but ten months later they married. She worked briefly as “chief coffee maker” as her husband began building a successful freight-forwarding company, Brooklands International. They raised and privately educated Georgina, now 33 and a human resources consultant, and Neil, 30, who is deputy editor of Golf Monthly. In 2003 Mrs Tappin was found to be suffering from Churg-Strauss syndrome, which left her without the use of her hands and feet for a year, and from which she has still not entirely recovered. This was the only obvious blot on the couple’s otherwise happy existence. After Mr Tappin retired in 2008 they enjoyed a life of golf, bridge and foreign holidays — several in America. They were blessed with a young grandchild and had planned a trip to Australia next year. “It was everything you could have wished for,” Mrs Tappin says. The “beginning of the nightmare” came one day in May 2010, when two plain-clothes police officers knocked at the door at 6am. They arrested Mr Tappin without explanation. He was taken to a magistrates’ court, remanded in custody and spent the night in prison. Mrs Tappin fetched him the next day after posting £50,000 bail. “We were beyond shocked,” she says. It transpired that a Texas Grand Jury had secretly indicted her husband three years earlier on charges of conspiring to ship missile batteries from Texas to Iran. Robert Gibson, a client of Mr Tappin’s, had bought the batteries from a front company set up by the US authorities to catch businessmen engaged in the illegal export of controlled technologies. Gibson named Mr Tappin as co-conspirator, and provided apparently incriminating evidence against him, in return for a reduced prison sentence. Mr Tappin insists that Gibson asked him merely to ship the batteries to Amsterdam, saying they were for a Dutch automotive factory. Over the next 20 months, successive courts and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, all rejected Mr Tappin’s arguments against extradition on purely technical grounds. They did not examine the evidence against him because the treaty does not allow for that. “I was thinking, this can’t happen to Chris because he didn’t do anything wrong ... I never in my wildest dreams thought he’d be extradited,” Mrs Tappin says. Her husband’s only previous brushes with the law had been occasional speeding tickets. Then, on February 15 this year, the same two plain-clothes policemen returned with an order for her husband to report to Heathrow police station at 9.30am on the 24. I
accompanied the Tappins that Friday morning. He was stoical, she tearful. As our vehicle drew up outside the police station she saw the waiting television crews. “Oh my God,” she exclaimed in horror. Her husband said a few words, but when a journalist asked how she felt she was too overwhelmed to answer and the couple disappeared inside for their painful parting. Mrs Tappin heard nothing of her husband for three days, then learnt that he was being held in solitary confinement at his own request with just one hour’s exercise a day, no books, television or radio, and lights that were never turned off. She was appalled. The following Friday, having been woken at 3am and held in a cage for five hours, he appeared in court in a red jumpsuit with one hand chained to his waist and the other left free for his walking stick. The prosecution opposed his bail application, claiming he was a dangerous international arms dealer, had made sinister trips to South Africa, Egypt and Dubai, and would flee to Mexico if his wife died and he had nothing to go home for. Mrs Tappin is incredulous. “I thought ‘how bloody marvellous’, and what a cruel thing to say to Chris. I have no intention of popping off any time soon,” she says. She ridicules the idea that her husband, an ageing man with no passport or ready cash who voluntarily surrendered himself for extradition, was a flight risk. Two days later Mr Tappin was allowed his first call home — at 3am Texas time. He told her he was fine, had finally been given books, and had met a friendly warden from London. He even joked about how her cooking had prepared him for prison food. Her relief was short lived. On Monday the judge denied bail. Her dejected husband was returned to his cell. His lawyer said the ruling would greatly complicate preparations for his trial and prolong the process by many months. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” Mrs Tappin said. Mr Tappin has now asked to join the prison’s general population, but his wife fears for his safety amid hundreds of hardened criminals. She calls him an “innocent abroad”.