The crime Baron and his gang who lived like kings by drug smuggling

They posed as businessmen to bring tonnes of cocaine into Britain, but their lucrative operation ended with jail terms

To his neighbours in one of Dublin’s swankiest suburbs, Philip Baron owed his conspicuous wealth to the improbable success of what he said was his company renting deck chairs on Spanish beaches.

The would-be beach-ware magnate, whose vast detached home backed on to one of Ireland’s premier golf courses, did indeed have a hugely lucrative income from a business enterprise based in the Costa del Sol. But it had nothing to do with deck chairs.

Instead, he was a kingpin in one of Britain’s most prolific drug smuggling networks, masterminding the transportation of vast consignments of cannabis and cocaine from Spain to the UK. He used the multi-million pound proceeds to fund a lavish lifestyle far beyond, he believed, the reach of the law.

Today justice finally caught up with the 57-year-old Mancunian when he pleaded guilty at Liverpool Crown Court to charges of conspiring to import 60 tonnes of cocaine, many tonnes of cannabis and money laundering. He will be sentenced in June.

The father-of-three, who used a reconciliation with his estranged daughter to pull her into his smuggling and money-laundering cartel, is the final suspect to be convicted following a five-year investigation by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) which its officers say has “completely dismantled” one of Britain’s top 10 drugs rings.

Run by expat Britons, the network smuggled at least 110 tonnes of drugs estimated to be worth £350m over 15 years. Operation Beath, the Soca investigation, has resulted in the conviction of 29 people and jail sentences totalling 200 years.

Steve Baldwin, Soca’s head of investigations, said: “There’s no doubt Baron and his associates were operating at the top end of organised crime. He lived a lavish lifestyle abroad, portraying himself as a legitimate businessman, while orchestrating the importation of huge amounts of drugs into the UK.

“There is clear evidence that his criminal activity was having a direct impact on communities in many of our towns and cities. Baron thought he was untouchable.”

The inquiry, which involved police forces from Costa Rica to the Irish Gardai, has yielded a rare insight into the workings of a smuggling network – from the code and nicknames used by the drug barons to their overseas trust funds and their extravagant spending habits.

Along with his co-conspirators, Baron, known as “4x” or “four by” because of his liking for SUVs, had hit upon a novel way of bringing their illegal product into Britain.

Rather than going to the trouble of hiding drugs in suitcases, the network decided to use the services of freight and courier companies to send consignments to 12 addresses across Britain rented from office services companies.

At the rate of at least one delivery per month, drugs were packed into boxes and labelled as technical manuals or printed material sent to unconnected and legitimate UK companies. Once they had arrived, another member of the gang would collect the consignment and distribute it to dealers in cities including Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

Suspicions were raised about gang members as far back as in 2008 when staff at a Cheltenham office services company became suspicious about the quantity of packages coming through its premises and alerted police. Soca began the long process of tracing the network back to Baron and another drug lord, Walter Callinan – like Baron a former lorry driver – who had moved from Stoke to a sprawling villa in Malaga.

Mark, the Soca officer who led the investigation, said the men fed supplies into their own network as well as supplying other outlets in Britain’s £5bn drugs market.

Baron, originally from Bolton, maintained the façade of a respectable businessman, driving a Bentley GT Continental and attending black-tie dinners. His two children by his second marriage were provided for with trust funds set up by the network’s money launderer in locations from Switzerland to Uzbekistan.

Neither of these children nor his current wife were involved with the drug business. But Baron did not extend the same courtesy to his third child, Rachael, who was contacted by her father for the first time in many years after the birth of her first child about six years ago.

Within weeks, Baron had enticed his estranged daughter into his network, using her to make purchases on his credit card, ranging from paying his phone bill to spending £60,000 on watches during a single visit to a jeweller’s. Rachael, who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for laundering £1m of drugs money, also arranged the purchase of her father’s Bentley.

As the funds started to pour into the bank accounts of the network’s members, a sense of invincibility infected the main players. Baron, who was arrested in 2011, spent nearly two years fighting extradition to Britain, taking his case all the way to Ireland’s Supreme Court.

Mark added: “They hammered the UK’s streets with drugs in the belief that they could live a life of impunity from abroad.”

Ironically, it was the habit of Callinan and the network’s principal money launderer – a former Barclay’s IT worker, Malcolm “Sir Humphrey” Carle – of keeping meticulous records that led to their downfall.

When police raided Callinan’s villa they found a 200-page ledger detailing every transaction for 17 tonnes of cannabis sent to Britain over a 17-month period. The shipments accounted for 6 per cent of all cannabis sent to the UK in that time.

One-by-one the gang members were picked off by the investigation until Baron and Callinan, who was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in 2011, were among the few major players left. Shortly after his arrest, Callinan phoned his son in a phone call which Soca investigators admitted they had found “enjoyable”.

The drugs overlord said: “There is documentation, spreadsheets of monies collected off motorways... 100 grand, 60 grand, 80 grand. We’re f***ed mate, they’ve got that much documentation. F***ing hell, the Pope wouldn’t get out of this.”

THE GANG: Butlins, Big Fella, Sir Humphrey and Spot

Philip Baron (aka "4x" or "Butlins")

The 57-year-old former HGV driver masterminded his smuggling operation for at least 15 years from his mansion backing on to Dublin’s prestigious K-Club golf course. Nicknamed after his liking for luxury SUVs and his views on open prisons, Baron was a key player in the smuggling gang, negotiating a deal with Colombian drug cartels to send cocaine to Britain via Spain. His second wife and their two children were, like his neighbours, led to believe he made his money from a deck-chair rental company. He will be sentenced in June.

Walter Callinan (aka “JJ” or “Big Fella”)

Callinan, 60, is thought to have met Baron while the pair were lorry drivers. He set himself up in Malaga, co-ordinating consignments of cannabis and using the proceeds to fund a lavish lifestyle, which included a racehorse paid for under one of his false names, James Jones or JJ, and costing £40,000 a year to maintain. Callinan travelled the world following the England football team, spending thousands on first class travel. Sentenced to 11 years for drug importation.

Malcolm Carle (aka “Sir Humphrey”)

The former Barclay’s IT worker swapped a £50,000 salary to become the chief money launderer for Bishop and Callinan. Carle, 59, charged his employers 20p per mile to collect drug payments but also tried to double cross them. After buying a £1.2m pub to help launder some of the drugs money, he took out a loan against it to further his own business deals without telling Callinan. Carle was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment.

Paul Hewett (aka “Spot”)

The 55-year-old was the man on the ground, responsible for the packaging of drugs in Spain with the names of legitimate engineering or car components companies and renting space from office service companies in Britain to receive the packages. In return, Hewett rewarded himself with the toys and baubles of a player on the Costa del Crime, including a 64ft Sunseeker yacht and a Porsche Cayenne car. He was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for drug importation.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
booksNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015