British woman living on goat-tramped Caribbean outcropping listed as director for more than 1,200 companies.
At the age of 38, Bradford-born Sarah Petre-Mears is running one of the biggest business empires on earth. Or so it would appear.
Official records show her controlling more than 1,200 companies across the Caribbean, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and the UK itself. Her business partner, Edward Petre-Mears, is listed as a director of at least another 1,100 international firms.
But the true location of this major businesswoman is mysterious.
The UK companies register lists 12 different addresses for her, several in London. But none are real homes: several are Post Office boxes, collecting mail for hundreds of different locations, while others merely house the offices of incorporation agencies.
Only one listed address, a cottage on Sark, seems genuinely residential. Sark is a remote self-governing tax haven in the Channel Isles, a 9-mile ferry-ride off Guernsey.
Sark indeed turns out to have once been the Petre-Mearses’ family home. But inquiries reveal that the Petre-Mearses left town more than a decade ago. Neighbours and schoolmates in the local offshore financial industry all scattered across the globe, and the couple moved on.
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.”
Nevis is a tropical dot in the Caribbean, more than 3,000 miles distant from Sark. A volcanic outcrop plagued by hurricanes, it is barely five miles across and its 12,000 population is smaller than that of many English villages.
Getting to Nevis from Sark requires a long, indirect and infrequent flight to the slightly bigger nearby Caribbean island of St Kitts, followed by an hour’s sea-voyage on the “Mark Twain,” an aging boat. Donkeys, goats and chickens roam the Nevis streets. The low houses outside the tiny capital of Charlestown are commonly roofed with corrugated iron.
But even here in this very intimate spot, the Petre-Mearses’ ghostly business empire is hard to pin down. One possible address corresponds simply to a small P.O. 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 as to the whereabouts of the allegedly vast commercial operation. One local responds: “You mean the English lady? Works with the offshores, right.”
Away on the far side of the island, the Guardian finally finds a prosperous-looking villa, quite deserted for the summer, with spectacular sea views and a noisily 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.
We tried to ask her about the allegations made against nominee directors. But she didn’t want to talk about it. However, the evidence we have gathered suggests that her impressive directorships are a 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 UK 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.
Local 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, who says he is a former special constable in Northamptonshire, posted a photo of himself in police uniform on-line until this month. After the Guardian confronted him with these allegations, the picture appears to have been removed. He told us: “Sarah Petre-Mears has acted as nominee for BVI 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 UK slave colony which now largely runs its own affairs within the British Commonwealth, shows no wish to interfere with the nominee trade.
The premier’s spokeswoman Deli Caines spoke frankly about their regime’s attitude, whilst a herd of goats wandered into the grounds of her government offices in a former hotel opposite a derelict petrol station.
“The offshores are one of the reasons Nevis and St Kitts are doing well,” she told the Guardian. “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.”
David Leigh is a member of ICIJ. This story was also published in The Guardian.