Sixteen years jail for the pounds 100m drugs baron the police called Target One

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The Independent Online
A Briton accused of running one of the biggest drugs cartels in Europe was jailed for 12 years in the Netherlands yesterday.

Curtis Warren, called the Teflon Gangster due to his ability to avoid serious conviction, was found guilty of orchestrating a plot to flood Britain with pounds 100m worth of cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and hashish.

The conviction was welcomed by British investigators, who had worked closely with Dutch authorities on Operation Crayfish, which led to the arrest of Warren, 34, from Liverpool, and five accomplices.

However, the judge at The Hague central criminal court, Judge Solco Holtrop, said he did not believe Warren was one of the "heaviest" criminals in the drugs racket, and reduced the 16-year jail term requested by the prosecution.

The trial had been fraught with problems. At one stage there was concern the whole system of cross-border co-operation between law enforcement agencies could be in jeopardy. The defence had successfully argued for an adjournment after objecting to the use of British undercover evidence. But the point was eventually rejected by Judge Solco Holtrop.

On another occasion the hearing was moved to a secret location following intelligence reports of an alleged plot to "spring" the defendants.

Warren's two main accomplices, Stephen Mee, 38, from Liverpool, and 34- year-old Stephen Whitehead, from Oldham, were jailed for seven years each. Mee is facing a 22-year jail term imposed at Manchester Crown Court in absentia for his part in a pounds 1m drugs raid.

John Farrell, 34, from Manchester, was sentenced to 12 months, but will be released in two days because of time spent in custody awaiting trial. Three others, 28-year-old Roy Nolan, William Fitzgerald, 55, and William Riley, 47, all from Liverpool, have already been jailed for three years each.

British detectives said it had taken a long time for justice to catch up with Warren, in spite of him being codenamed Target One by Interpol.

He and a partner, a 37-year-old career criminal from Middlesbrough, Brian Charrington, were the defendants when an investigation into an alleged pounds 250m drugs deal collapsed four years ago.

Subsequent investigations revealed that two Tory ministers, Attorney General Sir Nicholas Lyell and Sir John Cope, minister responsible for Customs, had intervened to have charges dropped against Charrington, leaving the avenue open for Warren's subsequent acquittal.

Warren and Charrington had allegedly travelled to Colombia to set up a deal with the Cali Cartel to import 900kg of cocaine concealed scrap ingots. Unknown to the pair they were already under surveillance by Customs. A call by Charrington was intercepted and the drugs were seized. Warren was charged along with 10 others.

Customs officers say the evidence against both Warren and Charrington was extremely strong, Then two officers from the North East Regional Crime Squad, Detective Inspector Harry Knaggs and Detective Sergeant Ian Weedon, said that Charrington was a valued informant.

In a meeting chaired by Sir Nicholas, his parliamentary private secretary, Tim Devlin, lobbied Sir John on Charrington's behalf, although he was not his constituent. Mr Devlin had visited Charrington in prison.

Charges were dropped against Charrington and the case against Warren collapsed. He and all but one member of the gang - Joseph Kassar - walked free.

A cocky Warren confronted Customs officers outside Newcastle Crown Court to boast that he was off to spend the pounds 86m he had made from the deal.

He was back in business, and the money from drugs paid for a luxury home in the Wirral, a flat on the waterfront in Liverpool, and properties in France, Spain, and the Netherlands. But other gangsters tried to muscle in. Warren became involved in a violent struggle with the rival Fitzgibbon/Ungi family in Liverpool. After his chief lieutenant, Johnny Phillips, was gunned down, Warren moved his base to the Netherlands.

But he was neither out of sight or mind of Customs. Informants came forward to say that Warren was setting up a major importation deal into Britain, and a joint operation, codenamed Crayfish, was organised with the Dutch authorities.

After six months of surveillance Warren was arrested in October last year by Dutch police near the Rotterdam Europort. A raid on a ship in the dock led to the recovery 800kg of Colombian cocaine with a street value of pounds 75m secreted in aluminium ingots. Raids in Amsterdam and Rotterdam netted more drugs bringing the total to pounds 100m as well as a cache of grenades, automatic weapons and CS gas canisters.

Following yesterday's convictions, Ranald Macdonald, a senior Customs investigator, said: "With the conviction of Curtis Warren an entire criminal organisation has effectively been destroyed."