By Jeff Edwards Jun 15, 2002, Mirror UK
THE most successful cocaine smuggling gang ever to target Britain has been smashed after a massive international operation.
Details can only be revealed today following a series of trials that have seen 15 people jailed with substantial sentences.
Yesterday South African gang member Hilton John Van Staden, 52, admitted conspiring to import drugs. After sending him to prison for nine years, the judge ended a publicity ban.
But the alleged Mr Big behind the multi-million pound drugs operation has escaped.
Millionaire gambler Brian Brendan Wright, 54, nicknamed The Milkman because he always delivered, is thought to have fled to Cyprus.
Among those jailed were his son, Brian Wright jnr, 35, who got 16 years for importing cocaine.
For years the gang smuggled hundreds of millions of pounds of drugs into Britain.
A Customs operation, codenamed Extend, uncovered a complex supply network embracing Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Panama.
Light aircraft parachuted drugs to waiting boats while speedboats made deliveries at sea.
Yachts and other vessels in the Caribbean and South America were used to ship drugs to waters off Britain, where they were switched to local boats to avoid detection.
Most of the handovers happened a few miles off Salcombe in Devon, Poole, Dorset and Lymington, Hants.
Between 1996 and 1998 alone, cocaine with an estimated street value of £300million was smuggled in.
The gang came unstuck in 1996 when one of their boats, a converted trawler called the Sea Mist, was caught in a freak storm and forced to abandon its course to Britain and dock in Ireland.
Customs officers in Cork searched the ship and found 599 kilos of cocaine, worth £80million, welded inside a disused goods lift.
They also discovered a parachute, leading them to believe that drugs had been dropped to the ship from a plane in the Caribbean.
The Sea Mist's skipper, American John Ewart, who had a forged British passport, was convicted of drug running and jailed in Ireland for 17 years. The rest of the crew was acquitted. But mobile phone records and items found on the Sea Mist pointed to Brian Wright senior as the mastermind.
A surveillance operation identified the men who were his most trusted allies. They were his son Brian, Kevin Hanley, 39, from Fulham, London and Ronnie Soares, 52, a university-educated Brazilian.
Soares was link man between Wright's mob and Colombian cocaine barons in Bogota and Medellin. Customs trailed Wright as he shuttled between his £1million villa on Spain's Costa del Sol and a £20,000-a-month rented flat in the luxury Chelsea Harbour complex in West London.
In 1997 and 1998, Customs learned that several boats had docked in British ports at night and transferred drugs to waiting vans.
Boats included the Moonstreak, which did two drops worth a total of £80million.
Other boats, the Cyan, the Flex and the Lucky Irish, each carried £50million of cocaine.
Four years ago Wright's mob was thrown into panic when Kevin Hanley was arrested by police with 29 kilos of cocaine in the boot of his car.
It gave Customs the break they needed to crack their case.
Brian Wright called an urgent meeting in London.
He booked into the Conrad Hotel at Chelsea Harbour under a false name, but Customs bugged his suite and secretly photographed him on the balcony.
A key South American ally, Ronnie Soares, flew in to join him.
They met up with carpenter Roger Newton, 42, an experienced yachtsman from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, and Colombian Lily Uribe, who was involved in money laundering.
The Customs bugging devices picked up conversations about drug movements and money transfers.
They were watching when Soares, Newton and another British conspirator, Barry Fennell, drove to a farm at Laleham, Middlesex, where Hanley had hidden 478 kilos of cocaine, worth £61million.
The drugs were moved by van to another storage site, controlled by Newton, near Southend, Essex.
Fearing the gang was about to split up and leave the country, Customs made their move.
They seized the drugs and arrested Brian Wright junior, Soares, Newton, Fennell, Uribe and four other suspected gang members.
But Wright senior and two other senior gang members, slipped out of the country.
Yesterday Treasury minister John Healey praised customs on their success, saying: "This is the culmination of six years' painstaking work. They have dismantled one of the most significant global drugs trafficking networks."
The 36-year-old Londoner visited the Caribbean to organise drug shipments. Convicted of conspiracy to import cocaine.
Hanley, 39, of Fulham, West London, ran sales supplying small clubs and dealers. Guilty of conspiracy to import and supply.
The 52-year-old Brazilian cocaine agent with links to crime syndicates in Unites States. Convicted of importing drugs.
Wright junior, 35, convicted of importing cocaine.
The 42-year-old freelance sailor from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, had a long list of drug contacts in South America.
The 51-year-old British waste disposal contractor pleaded guilty to drug trafficking.
The 54-year-old is said to have masterminded and bankrolled operations. He fled to the Turkish sector of Cyprus after being implicated in a horse doping scandal.
ON THE RUN
The 26-year-old Colombian living in London had £90,000 and $127,000 in her bag when arrested. Guilty of money laundering.
The 61-year-old ship's navigator was on the Moonstreak when it was seized with cargo of cocaine. Guilty of importing drugs.
The 48-year-old Brit was involved in several of Wright's smuggling operations, many of them in America.
GODFRIED HOPPEN BROUWERS
The 61-year-old Dutchman based in Brazil supplied boats on drugs runs. Guilty of supply.
HILTON VAN STADEN
The 52-year-old South African living in the US pleaded guilty to running drugs into UK on board the yacht Flex.
The 38-year-old London bookmaker was involved in selling drugs for the gang. Found guilty of conspiracy.
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