How drug gangs dupe 'mule' girls

Ian Burrell hears a father's plan to free the jailed daughter he says was an unwitting cocaine courier
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The Independent Online
Albert Hines is the kind of man you would never want your daughter to meet. He is a "muleteer", as one Customs officer described the men who cruise Britain's night-clubs with offers of lavish holidays in far- off places for impressionable girls - who then find themselves returning as "mules", bearing cargoes of hard drugs.

Last month the 32-year-old, who has a string of convictions for assault and theft, was jailed for 10 years at Isleworth Crown Court for organising the importation into Britain from Argentina of two kilos of cocaine, with a street value of pounds 200,000, by using Christopher Bergliter, 30, from Essex, as his mule. (Bergliter was given six years.)

But two years ago, Hines, who uses the alias Albert Saidu Tourie and describes himself as a musician, avoided another sentence, this time in Brazil, by escaping from jail. His mule on that occasion was Sharon Smith, then 18, who is now paying for her association with Hines with an eight-year stretch in a women's jail outside Rio de Janeiro.

This week her father, Dave Smith, flies to Brazil in the hope that a bundle of British court papers relating to the recent activities of his daughter's one-time "boyfriend" may persuade the Brazilian authorities to free her. Mr Smith, a cable joiner from the rough end of London's Islington, had little experience of air travel before Sharon met Hines, but this will be his third trip to Brazil. He knows all about muleteers now, and the type they like: "They are looking for teenage girls because they know an older woman would say, 'Why are you doing this?' The young girl won't ask questions."

Sharon Smith met Albert Hines - whom she knew as "Steve" - just before her 18th birthday in 1995. He wore his hair in a pony tail, dressed expensively and drove a Porsche.

"He took her out a lot and bought her expensive clothes," said Mr Smith. When Sharon, a design student, said she had been invited on holiday to Brazil, her father did not protest. "Me and the wife thought it was a nice thing. Sharon had always wanted to go on a foreign holiday and we had never been as a family."

When Sharon arrived at Heathrow, she was surprised to find that Michael Murphy, 49, who turned out to be a friend of Hines's, was booked on the same flight. In Sao Paolo, she was left in a hotel room for two days while her "boyfriend" went off with Murphy. He eventually apologised and showered her with more presents. They later flew to Rio, but on the eve of their departure, Sharon found her suitcase stolen from the hotel and her clothes scattered on the bed. Hines bought a new case. As the suitcase was passing through airport security, Hines said he was going to see Murphy off on another plane. Minutes later, the case was opened to reveal 3.5 kilos of cocaine. Her father claims she went into a frenzy, before leading Brazilian customs officers on a search of the airport for the men she said had set her up. They were found sitting in another plane and Murphy had 3.5 kilos of cocaine in his suitcase.

Mr Smith says the customsmen were sympathetic to Sharon but the courts sentenced all three Britons to eight years' jail. Sharon was taken to Bungu where she says has undergone brutal beatings from guards. But before the sentence was even passed, Hines escaped.

Mr Smith is taking the Isleworth court transcript to Brazil, where he and Sharon have an appointment with a judge in the Rio High Court. The hearing will be the third and final part of Sharon's appeal; she might be freed, have her sentence cut, or be sent back to Bungu. Mr Smith believes the new Hines evidence will be crucial.

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