Hero fireman jailed over £100m drug ring

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The Independent Online

A hero fireman honoured for rescuing victims of one of the July 7 bombs has been jailed for 14 years for his role in a £100 million cocaine ring, it can be reported today.

Simon Ford, 41, won a London Fire Brigade Gold Award for risking his life to get victims off the bus blown up in Tavistock Square during the suicide attacks on the capital in 2005.

But the former drug addict is now serving a jail term after admitting he was a key player in a sprawling network of underworld crime gangs responsible for flooding south-east England with drugs.

His case can be reported today for the first time after the final member of the 35-strong drugs and money laundering gang was sentenced at Southwark Crown Court and legal restrictions were lifted.

A total of 33 criminals linked to the operation have been sentenced to more than 200 years in prison for offences including conspiracy to supply cocaine, money laundering and firearms offences.

The court heard how ringleaders netted more than £100 million in cash via a run-down but heavily fortified taxi garage under the Westway in Paddington, central London.

Royal Oak Taxis received huge consignments of cocaine ready for repackaging and distribution and served as a one-stop money laundering shop for crooks who swapped bags of sterling for smaller 500 euro notes.

Ford was one of 22 people arrested when officers from Scotland Yard's Special Intelligence Section (SIS), supported by more than 500 colleagues, raided homes across London and the Home Counties in February 2008.

The simultaneous raids, the largest conducted by British police, employed a mechanical digger to ram through a wall of one Uxbridge home and followed 10 months of surveillance and bugging.

The Soho-based firefighter was caught red-handed at his flat in Guildford Street, Chertsey, as he divided more than 100 kilos of cocaine, worth around £5.5 million, for delivery to a ring of couriers waiting at service stations around the M25.

Police said the waterproof drug packages had been picked up at a beach in Hythe, Kent, the previous night after being delivered by men on an inflatable boat and were still wet with sea water.

Investigators realised what an important role Ford played in the gang when they found the drugs. They had believed he was simply a money courier.

A second man, cage fighter Aman Salhan, 28, of Oxford Avenue, Harlington, west London, was also found in the flat. He was jailed for 17 years after a jury found him guilty of conspiracy to import cocaine.

As officers searched the flat, dozens of phone calls were made to three pay-as-you-go mobile phones as worried criminal contacts tried to find out why the pair were running late.

Detective Superintendent Steve Richardson, head of the SIS, said the operation dealt a "huge blow" to the British class A drugs industry.

He said: "These criminals had been living the lives of wealthy businessmen through their criminal activity. The lives they are now leading could not be more different.

"The link between drugs and violence has been well made and can ultimately be traced to violence and harm in London's boroughs. Operation Eaglewood has prevented these men contributing to that."

The investigation, known as Operation Eaglewood, began in April 2007 after undercover police officers followed two known drug smugglers as they met a mystery accomplice.

Police learned he was Eyad Iktilat, 47, who operated Royal Oak Taxis, a taxi repair and loan company based in a breezeblock outhouse on industrial land alongside a dual carriageway.

Weeks of surveillance and a bug hidden in the office revealed the legitimate business was a front for a vast criminal empire as millions of pounds in cash and drugs flowed through its doors.

The crook lived a footballer's lifestyle with a fleet of prestige cars, including a Bentley Continental and Ferrari with personalised number plates, and several homes, as well as plans to build a villa in Spain.

Foot soldiers, known as money mules, brought bags of up to £500,000 cash to the taxi company for it to be converted into 500 euro notes via Euro Foreign Exchange (EFX), a corrupt currency exchange company in Paddington.

Investigators found EFX manager Jean-Claude Frigieri, 56, bought hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of 500 euro notes from a banknote wholesaler known as Interchange.

British foreign exchange bureaux have since stopped selling the notes because of their use to organised criminals, who value the fact it is easy to conceal and smuggle them.

Others linked to the gang included a convicted murderer, bodybuilders and Cambridgeshire drug dealer Russell Tate, 49, whose brother Patrick who was shot dead in a Range Rover in Rettendon, Essex, in 1995.

The gang's main banker, Iraq-born Maythen Al Ansari, 42, was jailed for three years for money laundering after his home in Vine Lane, Uxbridge, north west London, was raided by police who used a digger to smash down a wall.

The money laundering and drug distribution network was linked to up to 10 criminal gangs and had interests in Colombia, Spain, Israel, India, Dubai, Morocco and other north African states.