THE leader of an international drug trafficking gang, who spent 15 years masterminding his operations from a base within yards of the exclusive K Club in Co Kildare, has finally admitted his guilt.
Philip Baron (57) pleaded guilty to smuggling huge shipments of cocaine, cannabis and money.
He lived the life of a wealthy property developer at his luxury home at Bawnogues in Straffan and mixed freely in top business and social circles although he never had any taxable earnings.
But for the past two years he had been the key target of Operation Hinge, which was run by members of the Garda National Drugs Unit and the Criminal Assets Bureau.
He was also at the top of the hit list for Operation Beath, a joint enterprise between the drugs unit and the British Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).
Baron and his gang imported 52 tonnes of cocaine and cannabis into the UK from north Africa and Costa Rica and he used some of his vast profits to fund his champagne lifestyle.
He was a regular visitor to the K Club, played golf there and used the plush surroundings to meet some of his visiting accomplices to plan their shipments.
His drug importations were estimated to be worth around €350m and left him in charge of one of the biggest drug smuggling rackets in the UK.
Baron travelled extensively to meet his contacts including some of the leaders of the Colombian drug cartels.
But back in Ireland he was also busy developing working relationships with local criminals. He was friendly with Christy Kinahan and some of his closest associates and attended family functions in Spain.
He also developed connections with a drug trafficking gang based in Drimnagh and they were involved in at least one shipment of drugs into this country. He also knew members of the gang responsible for a pipebomb attack on the west Dublin home of the family of a Garda National Drugs Unit member.
Originally a van driver from Manchester, he used his huge resources to splash out on an £86,000 (€101,000) Bentley G7 continental car, bought a £200,000 (€236,000) solitaire ring for his wife, Elaine, enrolled two children in boarding schools here and bought them horses.
At Liverpool Crown Court yesterday he admitted three counts including conspiracy to import cocaine between March and November 2008, conspiracy to import cannabis between September 2005 and September 2009, and money laundering. He will be sentenced on June 14.
Baron is still under investigation here but Operation Beath brought about his downfall. He fought his extradition to the UK for 18 months. He and his associates ran a smuggling operation that police say was in the top 10 biggest ever uncovered in Britain.
They used ingenious methods including hiding drugs in pieces of machinery and in the back of a safe to smuggle them into the UK.
They were brought down by evidence including calls made by accomplice Walter Callinan (60) from prison which were listened to by police.
In one conversation, he was heard bragging that authorities had "f*** all", but in a later call to Baron he realised that key documents had been found in the home of money launderer Malcolm Carle.
Callinan was recorded saying: "We're f***** on it, mate, they've got that much documentation. F****** hell, the Pope wouldn't get out of it."
Twenty-eight members of the gang have already been convicted and jailed for their roles in the scam.
Steve Baldwin, head of SOCA 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. He recruited people whom he could trust to perform specific roles and moved drugs and cash around in a business-like fashion.
"Baron thought he was untouchable but we were able to work closely with partners, both here and overseas, to completely dismantle the crime groups he was linked to."
Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan said last night that the gardai worked very closely with SOCA and it was through partnerships with other agencies that they could successfully tackle international crime gangs.