Gangster convicted over £1m drugs plot

Jail sentence awaits notorious smuggler whose illicit earnings got him a place on 'Sunday Times' Rich List
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One of Britain's most notorious gangland figures was yesterday convicted of a drug-smuggling plot which would have seen the tiny channel island of Jersey flooded with £1m of cannabis.

Liverpudlian Curtis Warren – known as "Cocky" – is thought to be the UK's richest gangster after allegedly being involved in hundreds of millions of pounds worth of drug deals since the early 1990s. He was once the most wanted man in Europe, and is the only drug baron ever to appear in the Sunday Times Rich List.

The 46-year-old has spent only four weeks of the last 13 years out of prison, and his conviction yesterday means he is almost certain to return to jail. The offence, conspiracy to import a controlled drug, carries a maximum 14-year sentence.

The jury returned the verdicts after a two-week trial during which they heard details of Warren's life of crime. Owing to the risk of prejudicing the trial, his previous convictions could not be mentioned by the prosecution, but his own barrister, Stephen Baker, took the unusual step of telling the jury about his client's lawless past.

In 1991, Warren allegedly masterminded the importation of two lots of cocaine, the first worth £87m and the second £150m. He was arrested after police and customs intercepted the second shipment.

But he walked free from Newcastle Crown Court in 1993, after the case collapsed when it transpired that one of his associates was a police informant.

As he left court, legend has it that Warren told Customs officers: "I'm off to spend my £87m from the first shipment and you can't fucking touch me".

At one point he was said to be worth more than £125m. He bought houses in Merseyside and the Wirral, and appeared on the 1997 Sunday Times Rich List as a "property developer" worth more than £40m. His notoriety grew with his wealth. A book was written about him and, his barrister claimed, t-shirts with his photograph could be bought in Liverpool and London.

Justice finally caught up with Warren in 1997, when he was convicted in Holland of smuggling 400kg of cocaine, 100kg of heroin, 50kg of ecstasy and more than a tonne of cannabis. The value of the cocaine alone, the trial heard, was at least £75m. He was also convicted of possession of firearms, and was jailed for 13 years.

However, in prison his crime spree continued: he was convicted of the manslaughter of a fellow inmate and had four years added to his sentence. He was held in one of Holland's most secure jails and spent six years in solitary confinement.

When he was released, in 2007, easyJet refused to fly him from Amsterdam to Liverpool owing to his gangster past. He was forced to board a ferry to Harwich in East Anglia instead, and had to be driven the 300 miles to his native Merseyside by a friend.

However, unknown to Warren, his every move was already being watched by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which had started monitoring him in September 2006 while he was still in prison. They soon established that he was planning a drug deal which would see 180kg of cannabis, bought in Holland, transported by road across Europe and eventually shipped to Jersey by boat.

The plot began to falter when some of Warren's co-accused struggled to raise the €18,000 they had agreed to invest. It was postponed, but Jersey police decided to arrest Warren before the deal could take place. He had spent less than a month out of prison.

The operation which saw him arrested was not without controversy. Soca had handed control of the investigation to the Jersey police, who had seen Warren meet one of his associates, John Welsh – a man they were already watching as part of another drugs operation.

Undercover officers followed Welsh's car as he drove across the island with Warren in the passenger seat. They logged each stop and, at least once, bugged a public telephone box Warren had used. They also installed CCTV cameras on the street outside the St Helier home of the gangster's girlfriend, Kimberly Lockley.

Pictures were taken of Warren and Welsh as they visited the isolated St Catherine's Breakwater, where the police believed the drugs were to be smuggled into the country. Suspecting that he planned to negotiate the purchase and transfer of the cannabis from abroad, the Jersey officers resolved to extend the surveillance outside their legal jurisdiction.

They knew Welsh planned to get the ferry from Jersey to St Malo, in France, before driving to Holland in a rented car, and asked the French, Belgian and Dutch governments for permission to place a bugging and tracking device on his car.

They were granted permission to plant a tracking device by the French authorities, but all three countries refused permission for a listening device, saying it was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In what Judge Sir Richard Tucker described as a "reprehensible" and "unlawful" act, officers from Jersey – which is not signed up to the ECHR – went to France and bugged the car anyway.

Detective Sergeant Paul Kennea, one of the officers, later told the jury it was "an act that was for the better good". But the defence claimed it was proof of a conspiracy, and an attempt to have Warren convicted at all costs.

As well as Warren and Welsh, four co-accused, James O'Brien, 45, Jason Woodward, 22, Paul Hunt, 27, and Oliver Lucas, 23, were also unanimously found guilty of conspiracy to import a controlled drug. All six were remanded until sentencing on 4 December.

Bill Hughes, director general of Soca, said: "Serious organised criminals don't suddenly stop just because they have been caught once. Curtis Warren was a career criminal for whom prison was a temporary setback.

"He was already planning his next operation from inside prison, and when he was released Soca was waiting, watching, and listening. Together with our partners in the States of Jersey Police, we've stopped Curtis Warren's plans in their tracks."