'Sometimes we’d do about £10m or £15m in a week': The hunt for the £198m fortune of Britain's most notorious drug dealer
The authorities say Curtis Warren amassed a vast fortune, even operating from his prison cell. The problem is getting their hands on it
The locals call it the Pontins of the south coast, close to the cliffs and the La Corbière lighthouse that makes this corner of Jersey one of the most photographed areas on the island. But Curtis Warren, the international drug dealer, is unlikely to be detained by the sights next week as he is driven in armed convoy out of HM Prison La Moye and down Le Chemin des Signaux, the narrow country lane lined with trees and dry stone walls. More likely his thoughts will turn to the prospect of losing £198m of his reputed fortune that he is accused of squirrelling away around the world.
For the past two weeks Warren has been back in court for a confiscation hearing. Unlike his drug convictions in 1997 and 2009, which led to long prison sentences, this time Britain’s most notorious drug dealer is not standing trial, but still faces another 10 years inside if he cannot pay the sum ordered by the court.
His appearances at the Jersey magistrates’ court – notable for the armed police patrolling the lobbies – mark the latest of the authorities’ largely unsuccessful attempts to claw back cash from the only drug dealer ever to make The Sunday Times Rich List.
The authorities in Jersey are using “proceeds of crime” legislation – laws that Warren’s lawyers describe as “draconian” – to try to recoup money he has made from his “staggering” global business, sourcing cocaine from South America, heroin from Turkey and Iran, and cannabis from Morocco, prosecutors claim.
The authorities claim that the scale of his business was revealed in a series of conversations covertly recorded by Dutch police in which Warren, speaking cautiously and in code, allegedly talks about plans for the business, referring to “bathroom suites for Moscow”, and “horrible” (heroin) and “I’ve got a one” (a ton).
Warren, formerly Interpol’s No 1 target, operated his drugs business from Liverpool until 1995, when he moved to Amsterdam. There he set up a headquarters to run his networks from a heavily defended property known as The Shed, according to court documents. His ability to escape prosecution was notorious.
A lack of evidence saw Warren walk free from court in the early 1990s after being accused of importing two loads of cocaine during a complex case in which it emerged that his co-accused was a high-level informant. After the case collapsed, he reputedly goaded Customs officers, saying he was off to spend the money from a successful first shipment and that they “can’t fucking touch me”. Warren denies the claim, citing his failure to comment in any police interview since the age of 13, and said the comment was made up by police to embarrass the judge.
He was finally convicted in a Dutch court in 1997 and jailed for 13 years for smuggling 400kg of cocaine (worth £75m), 100kg of heroin, 50kg of ecstasy and more than a ton of cannabis. His sentence was extended after he killed another inmate in a prison fight.
He was released in 2007 but was free for only a few weeks before being arrested over a plan to smuggle £1m of cannabis from the Netherlands to Jersey, a “pump primer” to reassert his position as a top drug baron.
Warren was jailed for 13 years in 2009, but because of concerns about a prison break from Jersey, he is serving his sentence on the mainland. Warren, known as “Cocky”, could be released as early as January.
Before that can happen, he faces the final hurdle of the confiscation case in Jersey. For the past fortnight, the focus in court has been the business of the drugs trade: the bribes paid to corrupt shipping agents and drivers, the cost of shipping, the farm-gate prices for growers, the cuts for the middlemen and the huge profit margins for the multinationals. And like the legal business world, those who make it to the top rely on regular cash flow and significant price reductions for buying in bulk.
A key to the case in Jersey is how those profits have been recycled into legitimate businesses and laundered through property empires, overseas bank accounts in jurisdictions famed for their secrecy, and mining enterprises. Through it all, the muscular Warren, a former bouncer, has sat in the dock with three guards, passing repeated notes to his lawyer as he argued his case.
Warren’s business and finance network is believed to have a global reach, with markets from Russia to Australia, The business is alleged to have continued apace as he awaited trial in Jersey. He made thousands of calls to more than 40 countries on seven mobile phones illicitly brought into the prison, according to the National Crime Agency. Many of the calls were made to contacts in Europe but others were made as far afield as Swaziland.
Jersey’s Solicitor General, Howard Sharp, claims that over the years, Warren has salted away millions of pounds and accumulated a vast fortune. Warren claims that after 17 years in prison and as a result of seized shipments, he has nothing.
At the centre of the case is a secretly recorded conversation during a visit in a Dutch prison, where he boasted about the low rates of commission from his money launderer.
“They’d do us in Spain, they’d just say, ‘there’s a car there, there’s the registration, go and pick the car up 7pm, open the bag, just take the money out’… Just pick it up and carry on! You know what I mean for 1 per cent, 1.5 per cent. But... hell mate, sometimes we’d do about £10m or £15m in a week. Do you know what I mean?”
If Warren did that 10 times – a conservative estimate, according to prosecutors – then he laundered £100m between 1991 and 1996.
In an interview this summer from prison, Warren told The Guardian he “was bragging like an idiot and just big-talking in front of them”.
Prosecutors also claim that £11.7m passed through an account held at a bureau de change account at King’s Cross in London between 1994 and 1996. The account, in the name of “Tony Liverpool”, was said to be Warren’s and that foot soldiers paid the proceeds of drug sales into the account. The two sums, adjusted for inflation, come to £198.51m in today’s terms.
A judge and six jurats – professional magistrates in Jersey – are expected to decide next week if Warren should pay, and if he does, how much. What assets he has remain largely a mystery and previous attempts at seizing his property have proved pitiful.
Warren himself has, not surprisingly, been less than forthcoming. His only declaration of means, made to a court in 1992, listed a fruit stall in Bold Street, Liverpool, as his only asset. The stall – long since gone – is believed to have been surrounded by properties held in the names of associates.
His opportunity to break the habit of a lifetime came this week with the chance to give evidence about how much money he had. However, an application for immunity from prosecution to the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, was rejected, and he declined to take the stand.
Even if he is released from jail next year, he is likely to be banned from using phone boxes or having more than one mobile, and will have to tell the authorities whenever he plans to leave Britain. “I just wanna leave England, don’t I?” he told The Guardian. “And never come back.”
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