Jail beckons after £55million drugs haul

FOUR men were today facing the prospect of jail after being found guilty of smuggling £55 million of cocaine through Felixstowe port – one of the country's biggest ever drugs hauls.

FOUR men were today facing the prospect of jail after being found guilty of smuggling £55 million of cocaine through Felixstowe port – one of the country's biggest ever drugs hauls.

Customs officers at the container terminal played a major role in uncovering the consignment, tracking it and gathering intelligence and evidence for the case.

Father and son Rex and Duncan Newport, Mark Reeves and Louis Hillard were convicted at Wolverhampton Crown Court of smuggling the 651kg of drugs after a two-month trial. They had denied the charge.

The judge deferred sentencing until June 7 and asked for reports to be prepared. The men have been remanded in custody.

John Barber, spokesman for HM Customs in Suffolk, said: "Our Suffolk staff were significantly involved in the detection of the cocaine as it came into this country. This was one of the biggest detections that has ever come in through Felixstowe.

"Our locally-based staff are always in communication with other customs investigators in order to exchange information and intelligence."

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The case – called Operation Elysian by Customs officers – concerned a haul of cocaine which arrived at Felixstowe from Guayaquil, Ecuador on November 13, 2002, after a three-week journey from South America.

It was hidden inside a container loaded with a cargo of heavy plant, which was transhipped at Panama on to the MS Maersk Mathilde.

As a result of a long term Customs surveillance operation, the container was selected for examination by officers at Felixstowe.

They found the large quantity of cocaine concealed in a bulldozer blade, welded in special compartments.

Customs officers then arranged for the delivery of the container, under surveillance, to its shipping address in Langley Mill, Nottinghamshire. It was delivered on November 20 and the contents unloaded.

The following day a low loader vehicle collected the consignment and delivered it to an industrial unit in Bushbury, Wolverhampton, and later that day customs officers raided the unit, catching Reeves and Hillard removing the drugs.

The pair were arrested and Duncan and Rex Newport were arrested later the same day.

Inside a Peugeot van belonging to the defendants, officers found seven pre-paid mobile phones with coloured dots placed on them to indicate their use; two other mobile phones, boxed and unused; a bundle of phone cards; a sim card; and pieces of paper showing a telephone number coding system.

There were also papers relating to the delivery of the container and its contents which appeared to show that Hillard had arranged the importation of the container, using 25 different aliases to set up bogus companies to do so.

When customs officers searched the Rover 600 used by Duncan Newport they found seven pre-paid mobile phones with coloured dots on them; £150 worth of public telephone cards and two leather bags containing large quantities of £1 coins – potentially for use in telephone kiosks.

They also found a coded number system used to translate telephone numbers into letters making them indecipherable without access to the code, and a notebook containing the mobile telephone numbers of some of the defendants along with other numbers translated into letters using the code system.

At the time of his arrest, Hillard was found to be in possession of the same code system.

backgrounder on defendants:

WITH their secret codes, false names, and mobile phones, the smugglers thought they had set a trail so complex and clever it could never be followed.

But the foursome were not aware that Customs officers were already tracking their every move – just waiting for the day the drugs would arrive at Felixstowe.

Duncan Newport, 36, of Dyffryn, Gwynedd, was a co-director of Newport Plant Services, a company dealing in heavy plant and machinery, with his father Rex , 57, of Dyffryn Ardudwy, Gwynedd.

He was also a long-standing friend of Mark Reeves, 38, of Blakedown, Worcs, and was observed in the weeks prior to the container's arrival meeting Reeves and Louis Hillard, 56, of no fixed address, and also driving the Peugeot van which was seized when Customs officers swooped.

Before the container arrived at Felixstowe he was frequently seen using public telephones, on one particular occasion – accompanied by Hillard – at least twelve different kiosks in a four-hour period.

He was also seen removing a distinctive yellow box from the back of the van, a box that was later found to contain the tools required to extract the cocaine from the concealment.

His father runs companies importing and exporting goods from Ecuador, where the drugs came from, and is a regular traveller to the country.

He is a long-standing associate of Reeves and introduced Hillard to his son.

In April 2002 he stayed in the Grand Hotel in Guayquil at the same time as Reeves and visited the place again in October 2002, shortly before the container left for the UK.

When interviewed by customs officers after his arrest Rex Newport said he had met Reeves by chance in the hotel in Guayquil in 2002.

Reeves had in the past been employed as a welder by Rex Newport. In April 2002 he travelled to Ecuador and constructed the drug concealment, which was sophisticated enough to require the services of a professional welder to construct and subsequently dismantle it.

Shortly before the unit at Bushbury was raided, officers saw Reeves and Hillard using an angle grinder to cut into the drugs concealment.

Hillard is an old friend of Rex Newport. He was seen driving both the van and car which was seized and at one point was seen apparently conducting anti-surveillance manoeuvres in an attempt to see if they were being followed.

When customs officers raided the unit they found the van to be laden with tools to access the drug concealment.

When he was arrested Hillard identified himself as Tucker and produced a full Irish passport and a copy birth certificate in that name. When his real identity was established he was found to be "wanted missing" after failing to appear at crown court for sentencing on fraud charges, for which he was sentenced in his absence to two years' imprisonment.