Thanos Papalexis

The man who would be king: Thanos Papalexis sitting in state in his Palm Beach office before his arrest.
The murder of Charalambos Christodoulides was one of Scotland Yard's most baffling modern cases. The victim was a 57-year-old eccentric whose greatest pleasure was to dress in a Savile Row suit and designer accessories to make forays to the West End from his dingy flat in Kilburn. He would sit alone until the early hours of the morning in fast food restaurants around Piccadilly, talking to no one. He spent his days making minuscule bets at bookmaker shops and he didn't have much money.

When he was found, tortured and strangled, apparently killed by experienced criminals, the police were at a loss. Why would professional villains want to murder this harmless old loner?

Eight years on, cut to the Fire Rock café, an upscale pizza restaurant overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, Florida. Some of the wealthiest people in America live and play in this oceanside resort, where gated homes cluster around fastidiously kept golf courses and super-luxury hotels. Thanos Papalexis, a handsome 36-year-old with dark swept-back hair, was well-known to the local monied elite as an ambitious entrepreneur and some may have recognised him at the café last Friday as he entertained an attractive woman companion.

Imagine the diners' surprise when an armed US marshal walked to Papalexis's table, read him his rights and arrested him. The charge, the marshal said, was the murder of Charalambos Christodoulides.

What, it might be asked, could possibly connect the budding tycoon to the murder of a north London recluse? Part of the answer, investigators in the case believe, can be found in Papalexis's activities in the millionaires' playgrounds of the Florida coast.

Papalexis is a Londoner of Greek extraction. He is believed to have been involved in property development here before moving to the United States. He arrived in Palm Beach around five years ago and made an immediate impression. "He could sell sunglasses to a blind man," a former associate said. "The man is a genius when it comes to vocal skills."

Papalexis, a keep-fit enthusiast, moved easily among the style and health-conscious residents of Palm Beach. With a mixture of persistence and charm he became part of the social circuit. He moved into a $3 million, 5,700 sq ft mansion in the highly-favoured beachside community of Manalapan, north of Miami. He entertained lavishly, throwing a huge party at the Versace home, Casa Casuarina at South Beach, where Paris Hilton and the designer Valentino were guests.

Earlier this year Papalexis invited his rich friends to his rented estate at Palm Beach to join Bill Clinton at a fundraising gala for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. One of his friends was the local mayor, Lois Frankel. Papalexis drove a Bentley Arnage, dressed impeccably and charmed everyone. Well, perhaps not everyone.

The Evening Standard's own investigation into this Gatsby-like character reveals a rather torrid side to his professional life. Indeed, some people were asking searching questions about Papalexis long before he was hauled off to the county jail to face extradition proceedings on a murder charge.

He pursued property developing interests soon after he arrived in Florida. One of his early schemes was to create a luxury condominium complex on the site of a Palm Beach landmark, the old Helen Wilkes hotel, which occupied a prime location near the waterfront.

He secured the backing of his friend Mayor Frankel and negotiations seemed to go well, right up to the point where Papalexis had to put up the money. According to a source familiar with the deal, Papalexis couldn't raise the cash. But it seemed a mere blip in an otherwise unstoppable career and when he launched his private members' club, Vita, investors were enthusiastic.

Vita was, quite unashamedly, for the very rich. The idea was that for an initial investment and subsequent fees, members could access a world of pampered exclusivity. Papalexis promised executive jets, the finest yachts and hotel suites usually reserved for celebrities and world leaders.

Members could avail themselves of Vita's "fleet of limousines that will gracefully allow you to explore every destination or travel between destinations and ensure your schedules are always adhered to". The cars would usually be Bentley Flying Spurs, it was said, or 4x4s when members were visiting Vita's incomparable mountain retreats. Executive jet travel to members, Papalexis said, would be charged at a mere $1,500 an hour, a fraction of commercial rates.

People signed up. One investor was Robert Cuillo, a car dealership magnate and a leading figure in the Italian-American community in the United States. Mr Cuillo gave Papalexis $350,000 but when he tried to claim his mega-luxury benefits he was to be disappointed. An idea of just how upset this very wealthy businessman must have been when he tried to exploit his Vita membership can be gauged from the club's "executive" jet arrangements.

Papalexis did a deal with a pilot called Scott Phillips who operated an eight-passenger aircraft. If Papalexis's clients expected the "luxurious transportation" they had been promised, they were not going to get it in Phillips's plane. The Cessna was supposed to take investors in a Vita-related outfit, Grand Legacy, to their own private cay in the Bahamas. The plane was manufactured in 1983, had been heavily used and was grounded most of the time because of mechanical problems. The interior was shabby and, according to evidence cited in a lawsuit "... the seal around the aircraft door had holes in it. When the aircraft finally took off, passengers could hear whistling through the holes".

This was not what Papalexis's investors had expected. Cuillo sued to try to get his $350,000 back. Papalexis sued Phillips, the pilot. But Phillips claimed that the action was brought to avoid paying him money he was owed. He said of Papalexis: "The guy is broke and can't pay his bills."

A former Vita employee, who asked not to be named, described the venture as "a scam". He told the Standard: "We were all manipulated, we were all suckered. He had multi-millionaires coming in. We had people investing three, four, five million dollars. Thanos was paying himself $350,000 a year minimum."

The ex-employee realised things were going wrong when a $15,000 cheque Papalexis wrote to cover the cost of the Versace mansion party bounced. He recalled: "As Thanos left the party he said: 'Bye, tell them we'll take care of the bill. Someone will call.' But every cheque he wrote bounced."

This allegation was unknown to residents of Palm Beach's 1515 Tower, a block of apartments and penthouses in a favoured part of the resort. The residents, who co-owned the building, included young professionals but many were retired couples who had put their savings into the property. In 2006, the tower was in poor shape. It had suffered severe hurricane damage and there were problems getting the insurance company to finish repairs. The local authority said it was dangerous and wanted to demolish it.

Enter Thanos Papalexis. To the vast relief of residents, he said he would buy the entire building for $56 million. People moved out and waited for their money. Three times Papalexis said the money was on its way but it never arrived. Lawyer William Merlin, who represented the residents, said: "That sale didn't go through and they were relying on it."

Later it emerged Papalexis was being pursued by creditors for more than $2 million. Among them was the owner of his beachfront mansion who claimed the rent had not been paid.

But Papalexis was still driving the Bentley and still dining at the Fire Rock café. No one could suspect a link between what he was doing in Florida and a murder thousands of miles away in London. Yet papers deposited in the District Court of Southern Florida claim that the killing of Charalambos Christodoulides was connected to a property development deal.

When the British authorities, advised by Scotland Yard, appointed an attorney to begin extradition proceedings evidence was deposited at the court. It alleges that Papalexis had entered into a transaction to develop the building in Kilburn where Mr Christodoulides had his flat. But, it is alleged, Mr Christodoulides, a protected tenant, was holding up the deal and every week of delay was costing Papalexis £60,000 in interest on a bridging loan.

Documents filed at the court, including telephone records, fingerprints and forensic evidence, allege that Papalexis could be linked to the crime. Two men have already been charged with the murder and are expected to stand trial at the Old Bailey next year.

It is not yet known if Papalexis will fight extradition. Under legislation passed in 2003, British citizens living in the United States can be extradited to stand trial in Britain if a court there is persuaded there is a viable prima facie case against them. His wife Karina, and their baby Manny, are believed to have left Florida to return to England.

Papalexis made a considerable impression among the wealthy denizens of Palm Beach but if Britain succeeds in extraditing him, not everyone there will be sorry to see him go.