A MILLIONAIRE director of Queens Park Rangers Football Club was taken hostage with a gun held to his head and forced to write a resignation letter during a violent boardroom ordeal, a jury was told yesterday.
In a scene reminiscent of the gangster television series The Sopranos, Gianni Paladini was said to have been punched and slapped by a gang of five ?heavies? hired by David Morris, a director of the club.
Blackfriars Crown Court was told that Mr Morris, 50, had wanted the 59-year-old Italian businessman to relinquish his control and give up his majority shareholding of the West London club. The attack culminated in armed police descending on the stadium at half-time during a match against Sheffield United, and raiding one of the executive boxes to arrest the gang, it was said.
As Mr Morris sat in the dock yesterday with six co-defendants and a row of security staff, David Williams, QC, for the prosecution, said that Mr Morris had ?hired muscle? to force out Mr Paladini.
Opening the case, he said that Mr Paladini, who had bought a controlling stake in the club with ?600,000 of shares, had ?ruffled feathers? with his fiery Latin temperament. The team were suffering from serious financial problems and languishing in the Coca-Cola Championship division.
The attack took place in the chief executive?s office at QPR?s Loftus Road stadium minutes before the kick-off, Mr Williams said. ?This was no classic boardroom struggle at a football club of the type with which you might be familiar from the business papers or sports newspapers,? he said.
?A gun was produced and possibly another held to the head of Gianni Paladini, who then owned a 14.7 per cent stake in the club. At the dictation of Mr Morris, a co-director, he was forced to write out a letter of resignation and to sign two documents. To ensure he did so he was intimidated by the presence of hired muscle provided by Andy Baker.?
Mr Morris, of Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire; Mr Baker, 38, of North Petherton, Somerset; Aaron Lacey, 37, of Watford; John McFarlane, 39, of Hayes, London; Barry Lee Powell, 34, of Greenford, London; Michael Reynolds, 45, of Wood Green, London; and David Davenport, 38, of Chesham, Buckinghamshire, all deny possession of a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence, false imprisonment and conspiracy to blackmail in August last year.
The court was told that Mr Morris had asked Mr Paladini for a chat in the chief executive?s office. There, Mr Williams said, six ?muscle men? burst in. Mr Baker punched Mr Paladini in the stomach and said that the men were QPR fans and ?what they were doing was best for the club?.
?A gun was produced, whether real or imitation we cannot say,? Mr Williams said, comparing what happened to a scene from The Sopranos. ?It was pointed at Mr Paladini before being placed on the table in front of him. From the rear he could feel something being pushed at the back of his head. He was never in a position to see if that was a gun or not, but understandably feared that it was.
?It was against this scene Gianni Paladini was forced to write his letter of resignation. He was shouted at, slapped and punched by the group until he complied. He had no means of escape and, terrified for his safety, did as he was told.?
Mr Morris was said to have shouted at him, ?Sign there, sign now?, while one of the gang said: ?Let?s kill him now.?
At one point Bill Power, then the chairman, was barred from entering the office by a heavily built man who claimed that the chairman had ordered that no one should enter. Mr Power replied: ?I am the f*****g chairman.? He added: ?It looks like the lunatics have taken over the asylum.?
Inside the room Mr Paladini was told that his shares would be paid into his bank and that he and his family should never return to the ground, the court was told. As he was escorted from the office his son, Stephen, emerged and saw his father in tears.
One of the gang was heard to say to Stephen Paladini: ?If you say another word I?ll break your neck. I?ll push you down the stairs. I?ve told you not to talk to me, not to look at me.?
Moments later Mr Paladini broke free and began screaming hysterically and police were alerted as the gang fled. Armed police evacuated guests from executive boxes at half-time. They then burst in and arrested Mr Morris, Mr McFarlane, Mr Baker, Mr Powell and Mr Lacey.
In the box they found a piece of paper with an uncompleted resignation letter in shaky handwriting and ?7,000 in cash, which Mr Williams said was payment for the ?hired muscle?.
Mr Davenport and Mr Reynolds were arrested walking from the ground. Mr Davenport?s car was found to contain a blank-firing 8mm handgun.
Mr Morris?s brother, Daniel, was said to have played a significant role in the incident. He is still being sought by police.
The trial is expected to last four weeks.