Respected lab used as amphetamine factory

ONE QUIET Friday evening last August, a research chemist on a brand new motor bike pulled up outside a public house a few yards from John Major's house in Great Stukeley, near Huntingdon.

Paul Halfpenny, 34, was on his way to a 'meet'. In a shoulder bag, he had 2 kilograms of amphetamine powder, worth pounds 24,000. He was about to walk into a police trap that would bring to an end a three-year drugs manufacturing operation supplying 'speed' and 'ecstasy' to the north of England from the laboratories of a respected pharmaceuticals company.

Halfpenny was a research chemist. He had turned from legitimate work on drugs for mental disorders to producing amphetamines and MDA (methylene dioxyamphetamine), a close relative of ecstasy. This is thought to be the first time a commercial laboratory in the UK has been exposed as having been misused in this way. Halfpenny said he worked during normal hours on a bench next to colleagues who claim they suspected nothing.

Police from the regional crime squad charged him with possession, production of controlled drugs, and conspiracy, with another man, to produce MDMA (methylene methadioxyamphetamine) - pure ecstasy. This last charge carries a maximum sentence of life.

The other man was Dr Reginald Richardson, 37, also a research chemist, internationally recognised for his work on new pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Both worked for Parke-Davis, the pharmaceuticals arm of the US multinational, Warner Lambert. The Cambridge laboratory shares a site with Addenbrooke's Hospital.

Dr Richardson, married with two children under five, was arrested a few days after Halfpenny. He was stunned, and still cannot explain why he was picked up. Both men were brought to trial four weeks ago at King's Lynn Crown Court. Within days, Halfpenny changed his plea to guilty. Last week, after five hours of deliberation, the jury cleared Dr Richardson on all counts.

He is bitter about his arrest and trial, which cost him his job and reputation. 'I have had no support whatsoever from the people at Parke-Davis . . . The chances of my getting back into the pharmaceuticals industry, even as a glass washer, are very slim . . . mud sticks.'

The company says it sacked him because of his attitude to health and safety regulations and for pilfering company property, not because of the trial.

The police are reluctant to talk about the case, but Halfpenny appears to have been arrested after a tip-off. Halfpenny and Dr Richardson were friends outside work. The prosecution case against Dr Richardson included evidence from police analysis of material from Dr Richardson's 'fume hood', or working area, which found traces of an intermediate to MDA. But anyone could have worked under Dr Richardson's fume hood.

The police also referred to glucose powder they found at Dr Richardson's house. Glucose is a common base for ecstasy tablets. Dr Richardson admitted having taken a small amount (400 grams) of glucose and some citric acid from his company, but says he used these for home brew.

The atmosphere at the laboratory was relaxed. People would order chemicals for each other.

It emerged in court that Parke- Davis sacked a third man last year. The head of chemistry at the laboratory said he understood this was because the man was making unauthorised substances. He has not been charged.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was to find that colleagues Dr Richardson knew as friends should turn against him so quickly and finally. Some of the company witnesses denied practices Dr Richardson claims were routine. 'It is very disturbing that people you work with that you think you know and trust for eight years will turn their back on you . . . not just ignore you but twist the knife even further.'

Dr Richardson now programmes lasers at Miller Graphics in Haverhill, Cambridgeshire, on half his previous pounds 25,000 salary. If Parke-Davis were to offer him his job back he would probably say no. 'I have been a chemist for 18 years. It would seem an awful waste if that experience went down the toilet, but that's the way it looks.'

Mr Halfpenny is expected to be sentenced at Norwich Crown Court in a few weeks' time.

(Photographs omitted)