Brian Wright, nicknamed The Milkman, flooded Britain with huge quantities of cocaine in the 90s. Today he was found guilty by a south London court of conspiracy to supply drugs. Ian Cobain reports
guardian.co.uk, Monday 2 April 2007 17.14 BST
An undated picture of Brian Wright released in 2002 by HM Customs and Excise. Photograph: PA He is a former borstal boy who became Britain's most successful cocaine smuggler, befriending the rich and the famous along the way. His friends in showbusiness declared him to be a warm and generous man, while his underworld drug dealing associates nicknamed him The Milkman - because he always delivered.
Brian Wright and his gang flooded the country with enormous quantities of cocaine throughout the 90s. In just one year, 1998, they are thought to have imported almost two tonnes of the drug, with the result, according to one Customs investigator, that "the cocaine was coming in faster than people could snort it".
A lifelong gambler, Wright used some of his drugs fortune to bribe jockeys and to arrange for racehorses to be doped. He would then bet £50,000 or more on rigged races, and use the proceeds as a facade to conceal the true source of his wealth.
Yet despite his notoriety, Wright felt able to taunt one Customs officer that he was prepared to "bet my £1m to your £1 coin" that he would never be successfully prosecuted.
Today Wright, 60, is facing a lengthy prison sentence after being found guilty at Woolwich Crown Court in London of conspiracy to evade prohibition on the importation of a controlled drug and conspiracy to supply drugs.
The trial followed an 11-year investigation, on four continents, codenamed Operation Extend. Among the 20 people convicted were Wright's son, son-in-law and several other members of his gang.
One, Paul Rogers, a former Daily Mirror journalist and expert yachtsman who has written several books about sailing, was jailed for 16 years. Wright's main south American contact, a 56-year-old Brazilian economist called Ronald Soares, received a 24-year term. Another person who was drawn onto the fringes of the gang was Bill Frost, a Times journalist who developed a cocaine addiction and died, aged 50, six years ago.
The Milkman was born in Dublin and moved to the UK at the age of 12, growing up in Kilburn, north west London. He was sent to borstal for two years after repeatedly truanting from school to work on market stalls.
He is thought to be largely illiterate and, by his own admission, has never paid a penny in tax in his life. Nor has he ever had a bank account, credit card or national insurance number. In his drug-smuggling heyday he would travel by boat or private jet, and Customs officers are unsure whether he has ever had a passport.
"On paper," one investigator said today, "he simply doesn't exist."
British Customs officers first came across The Milkman after their Irish counterparts seized 599 kilos of cocaine, with a street value of around £80m, from a converted trawler which docked at Cork in September 1996. Further investigations suggested the drugs were destined for Wright, who was already the subject of inquiries by the Jockey Club and Scotland Yard into race-fixing.
As the investigation developed, and more gang members and vessels came into the picture, Customs officers realised that Wright was using a modus operandi called "coopering", which has been employed by British smugglers for hundreds of years.
Consignments of cocaine would be despatched from south America or the Caribbean in a large yacht, which would sail to Devon or Cornwall. That vessel would almost inevitably attract the attention of Customs officers. Before reaching Britain, however, it would rendezvous over the horizon with a smaller yacht which appeared to be making a day trip from a south coast resort.
The drugs would be switched, or coopered, from one vessel to another. And while the first yacht was being searched on arrival in the UK, the second would be offloading the cocaine to waiting cars and vans.
Customs officers eventually identified six yachts which crossed the Atlantic this way, bringing three tonnes of cocaine between 1996 and 1998. Some of those eventually arrested admitted they had been running the Caribbean-Cornwall route as early as '93.
Wright was able to buy a large house in Frimley, Surrey, and a villa in Spain. He had a box at Ascot, rented a flat in Chelsea's luxurious King's Quay development, and conducted most of his business from the adjoining Conrad Hotel. Most of his wealth was held in cash, however, stashed in the lofts of relatives.
By this time, the big-spending Wright was close to a number of celebrities, who would laugh off any suggestion that he was a major international drug smuggler. Jim Davidson, the comedian, asked him to be godfather to his son. Mick Channon, the former Southampton and England footballer who became a successful racehorse trainer, agreed to be a character witness at his trial. Wright boasted that Frank Sinatra had also been a friend, and it is understood he rubbed shoulders with Clint Eastwood, Michael Caine and Jerry Hall. All were unaware of his criminal background.
Customs officers, meanwhile, say they had established that Wright was masterminding the biggest international drugs trafficking operation ever to target the UK. They had travelled to the Caribbean, Venezuela, Australia, South Africa, the USA and half-a-dozen European countries. Dozens of gang members and suppliers had been identified.
While most of the gang was rounded up in 1999, and subsequently jailed, Wright managed to flee from his villa in Spain and travel by plane to northern, Turkish-controlled Cyprus, which has no extradition arrangements with the UK. Fearing detention there, he travelled to Spain, where he was arrested in April 2005.
He was convicted after a trial which lasted almost three months.