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Behind the Suffolk sting - Bawdsey trial

PUBLISHED: 21:00 28 February 2002 | UPDATED: 11:27 03 March 2010

WITH drugs, guns, nightclubs and an alluring lapdancer, it had all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster and climaxed on a remote Suffolk beach.

When the Essex drug gang picked the quiet sands of Bawdsey Quay as the drop-off spot for almost £1/2million of smuggled drugs, the tiny hamlet became the unlikely setting for an armed drama - the culmination of a major Customs and Excise operation to blow apart a narcotics ring.

WITH drugs, guns, nightclubs and an alluring lapdancer, it had all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster and climaxed on a remote Suffolk beach.

When the Essex drug gang picked the quiet sands of Bawdsey Quay as the drop-off spot for almost £1/2million of smuggled drugs, the tiny hamlet became the unlikely setting for an armed drama - the culmination of a major Customs and Excise operation to blow apart a narcotics ring.

On May 3 last year, customs officers backed by Suffolk Police and officers from four other forces sprung from hiding places to capture four members of the eight-strong smuggling syndicate led by a self-styled Rambo who had escaped a death sentence in an African prison.

A fifth gangster - an expert French speedboat driver named Angel Jimenez - was captured in the waters of Deben after his vessel first ran out of fuel and then stalled again as it entered the estuary. The drugs were stashed inside seven holdalls on board the boat.

Surrounded by gun-wielding police and customs officers, three of the four on the beach obeyed orders to lie on the ground, but Ferrari-driving nightclub manager Sean Clark - posing as a fisherman - refused. It was only when he was sprayed with CS gas that the Essex mobster (and number two in command of the grand smuggling plot) dropped the fishing rod he was holding. Also there was Clark's young lover Bonnie Simon - a topless tabloid model and nightclub lapdancer who denied smuggling and was found not guilty by a jury.

But by far the biggest catch for customs officers that spring morning was Mark Rothermel - the hulking leader of the plot to bring drugs from Holland into Britain via the Suffolk coast.

When officers raided an Essex house used by him, they found a global positioning system (for navigation via satellite) and drug-related equipment including a pill-press, scales and a shrink-wrap machine.

While Rothermel was the drugs-ring's General, and Clark his willing first lieutenant, the likes of Guy Clements and Matthew Howes (who were both on the beach), were his foot soldiers. Also among Rothermel's legionaries was John McCann, a disabled Essex dad who was waiting at Point Clear, Essex, for Jimenez's boat to arrive after dropping the drugs at Bawdsey. The Frenchman's speedboat never arrived however, and instead McCann was met by officers who arrested him for his part in the plan.

A week later, master boat-builder and seasoned smuggler Leonard Haworth was arrested as he returned from Malaysia where he claimed to have been trying to sell vessels to the south-east Asian government. Haworth, like Jimenez, was one of the plot's specialist operatives - contracted in by Rothermel build the high-speed powerboat which Jimenez would skipper to Holland and then Bawdsey.

FOR ten months, customs officers shadowed drugs mastermind Mark Rothermel - tailing the ex-convict, who served time for cutting the arms and head off a body, after he returned from Brazil. Acting under the codename "Operation Humble", investigators tracked the 42-year-old as he pulled together a smuggling gang and then implemented his plan to bring drugs into Britain via the Suffolk coast.

Between late February and the end of April last year, members of the drugs syndicate visited a string of remote beach spots and lonely East Anglian coastal resorts from Norfolk through Suffolk to Essex and Kent.

Rothermel, a meticulous organiser, gave each place a mark out of ten for remoteness, ease of access and strength of mobile-phone reception. Bawdsey scored top marks.

He was looking for the perfect smuggling spot to which a speedboat stashed with drugs could sneak into Britain from the continent and avoid the gaze of law enforcers. He picked Bawdsey for the drugs drop and Point Clear, near St Osyth, as launch and landing-spot for the boat to Holland.

In a strange twist of fate, Point Clear featured in last year's film "Essex Boys" - the true story of the Rettendon Landrover murders where three Essex mobsters were killed in the culmination of a drugs feud. The victims belonged to "The Firm" - a notorious 80s gang with strong links to the Essex drugs trade and to a Basildon nightclub where Rothermel had worked as a doorman.

While Rothermel and his minions combed the East Anglian coast, Richardson and boatbuilder Leonard Howarth loaded the "Interceptor" vessel they would use for the operation onto a trailer in Berkshire and drove it to a remote Essex farm to work on.

On April 17 last year, customs officers watched as Rothermel took another of his lovers to Calais via the Channel Tunnel for a secret meeting with Sean Clark.

The same day, on the other side of the channel, Jimenez met Brian Richardson (Rothermel's second lieutenant), Haworth and John McCann. Haworth and Jimenez were criminal pals of long standing who had met in a French prison and who had already shared one unsuccessful smuggling attempt which had ended in jail for both - a pattern the friends would soon repeat.

Over the next two weeks, the gang fine-tuned their plans. McCann, Jimenez and Richardson checked the beach at Point Clear, Rothermel made a trip to Bawdsey and Clark headed to Lakeside shopping centre at Thurrock, Essex, to buy walkie-talkies.

On April 30, three days before the Bawdsey raid, most of the group met at The Venue nightclub in Ilford which many of the gang had links with. Haworth was missing from the gangsters' get-together.

The following day, Rothermel and Richardson left for Holland while McCann and Jimenez went to Point Clear to launch the boat. Early the next morning, the Interceptor was seen approaching the Dutch shore where the pair met the Frenchman at the small harbour town of Breskens to load the drugs for his return voyage. Having completed the handover, Rothermel and Richardson travelled straight back to England, Richardson heading straight home and Rothermel making his way to Bawdsey beach.

Other members of the gang made for Bawdsey where Jimenez was due to return early on May 3. Clements and Howes arrived in Suffolk first just before 11pm on May 2, and sat in a pick-up truck waiting in the shingle car park behind the sea wall. They were followed by Clark and finally Rothermel.

McCann meanwhile, waited at Point Clear with a walkie-talkie, ready to help Jimenez out of the water with the vessel after the drugs had been off-loaded at Bawdsey.

But the boat never arrived. Expert sailor Jimenez ran into fuel problems off the Suffolk coast and was pulled in by customs investigators at the same time as police raided the beach party. Simultaneous raids were made on Richardson and Smith's homes.

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