How one woman runs 1,200 companies from a Caribbean rock
On the trail of a company director for a host of wealthy clients whose activities include luxury Russian property, porn and gambling sites
The Guardian in Charlestown, Nevis
At the age of 38, Sarah Petre-Mears is running one of the biggest business empires on earth. Or so it would appear.
Official records show Petre-Mears, born in Bradford, is controlling more than 1,200 companies across the Caribbean, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and Britain. Her business partner, Edward Petre-Mears, is listed as a director of at least a further 1,000 international firms.
But the true headquarters of this major businesswoman remains mysterious. Companies House in Britain lists 12 addresses for her, several in London. None are real homes: several are PO boxes, collecting mail for hundreds of locations, while others merely house the offices of incorporation agencies.
Only one listed address, a cottage on the island of Sark, seems genuinely residential. Sark is a remote, self-governing tax haven in the Channel Islands, a 14km ferry-ride from Guernsey.
Sark indeed was once the Petre-Mears' family home. But inquiries reveal the family left town more than a decade ago. As neighbours and friends working within the local offshore financial industry in Sark scattered across the globe, the couple moved to the Caribbean.
John Parker, the owner of a British incorporation agency, explained in an email: "Sarah and Edward Petre-Mears have dual residence - Sark and Nevis ... The reason for this is that the UK government is trying its hardest to stop the 'Sark Lark', as it is known, and they decided to do something about it before it was forced upon them."
Under the "Sark Lark", sham company directors, known as nominee directors, sell their services to companies around the world, helping keep secret a vast array of dubious financial transactions and obscure the true ownership of thousands of firms. The vast extent of the apparently legal manoeuvre was revealed yesterday in an investigation by the Guardian, the BBC and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)
Nevis is a volcanic outcrop plagued by hurricanes, it is barely 8km across with a population of 12,000.
Getting to Nevis from Sark requires a long, indirect and infrequent flight to the slightly bigger nearby island of St Kitts, followed by an hour's sea-voyage on the Mark Twain, an ageing boat.
But even in this very intimate spot, the Petre-Mears' ghostly business empire is hard to pin down. One possible address corresponds simply to a small PO box in the Charlestown post office. Another, called the Henville Building, turns out to be a branch of the local First Caribbean bank.
Finally, a clue emerges. One local responds: "You mean the English lady? Works with the offshores, right?"
On the far side of the island, is a prosperous-looking villa, quite deserted for the summer, with spectacular sea views and a noisy, unchained dog in the garden. This is Sarah Petre-Mears' home in the sun, where she officially claims to be masterminding battalions of international firms. She also finds time to run marathons and cycle races in New York, Florida and Hawaii, and to bring up her two children on the island.
Petre-Mears did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations against nominee directors. However, the evidence suggests her impressive directorships are a complete sham.
A DHL courier has for years been making regular overseas runs, carrying batches of company papers for Petre-Mears simply to sign in return for cash.
John Parker is one of her British connections, who registers offshore entities for anonymous clients with her as nominee director. Petre-Mears does not appear to need to know much about the people for whom she passes resolutions, allots shares and helps set up bank accounts. All she has to do is sign her name.
Those names appear on activities ranging from Russian luxury property purchases, to porn and casino sites. Sometimes, such nominees even act as shareholders as well as directors.
Two Nevis islanders, Kellee France and Stanley Williams, were also recruited to sign up as nominees in recent years, adding apparent variety to the list of names for sale.
Parker, the owner of Offshore Incorporations Ltd, said: "Sarah Petre-Mears has acted as nominee for BVI [British Virgin islands] companies which this company has formed ... As far as we are concerned, she has acted as a genuine nominee.
He added: "The nominees [the legal owners] act on behalf of the beneficial owners ... Every large financial institution in the world uses exactly the same arrangement."
He said: "All arrangements can be used for fraud and theft but we would not accept any client if we knew or suspected that was their intention."
The government of Nevis, a former British slave colony that now largely runs its own affairs within the Commonwealth, shows no wish to interfere with the nominee trade. The Nevis premier's spokeswoman, Deli Caines, talked frankly about the regime's attitude. "The offshores are one of the reasons Nevis and St Kitts are doing well," she said. "Is it locals complaining, or those from overseas? It's not the locals. If Britain is crying about its tax dollars, that's not really a problem for us."