THE ONE-EYED, tatooed former boyfriend of one of the two girls jailed for allegedly attempting to smuggle cocaine out of Peru last night cast serious doubts over their claims about the sequence of events leading to their arrest.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, Shane Knowles, 37, said he believes Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid willingly transported the drugs to make money to support their lifestyle in Ibiza.
"I know the full truth. I know everything that went on. I know the precursor to why it all happened," Mr Knowles said. He claims he warned Melissa and another friend of the dangers posed by the drugs trade in Ibiza.
"I was the first person to meet them out there when they got to the apartment. It was inevitable what was going to happen. I told them not to get involved," he said.
Although Mr Knowles never spoke to Michaella in person, he knew her circle of friends and has speculated about how the girls became ensnared by major players in the drugs trade.
"They were girls who hung around people with money in villas. And then somebody made them a good offer and they went and did it. Everyone is out there with no money, trying to make money. And they obviously got an incentive to do it," he said.
However, Michaella's lawyer, Peter Madden, last week stressed that the girls were not offered money at any stage.
Mr Knowles claims he tried to warn Melissa not to carry on with the plan just days before the girls were arrested at Lima Airport with €1.7m worth of cocaine, which was stashed in food parcels.
This is at direct odds with the girls' claims that they were forced at gunpoint to make the journey from the Spanish holiday island of Ibiza – where they had been working in bars – after they were befriended by a man from London.
They claimed they were shadowed by gang members throughout the journey and warned that if they did not pick up the drugs in Peru and bring them back to Spain their families would be killed.
But Mr Knowles said he has no sympathy for the two young women, who are now looking for money from the Irish public to help fight their case.
He spent the summer in Ibiza, where he began dating Melissa. A picture on her Facebook page shows Mr Knowles and a group of young men posing outside the Las Piramides apartment block where she lived. Another shows her in a yellow print dress smiling happily in a bar with Mr Knowles at her side in a white designer T-shirt.
The bodybuilder claims that drug smuggling is a common occurrence on the party island and that Melissa first became aware of that world after seeing another friend go through with a smaller deal – and get away with it unscathed.
"[Melissa knew] another girl who did something naughty. The girl went and brought stuff back from Marbella. And it all escalated from that," he said. "It gave Melissa the confidence to do this."
Speaking about their imprisonment in Peru, Mr Knowles claims a third girl was due to be in on the deal but opted out at the last minute.
"They are going to have a hard time, aren't they? Tough on them. They made a choice. Every choice you make in this life is your own choice.
"There were plenty of chances they had to stop and walk away. Another girl walked away from it. There was meant to be three of them going. Another girl. But she walked away."
Speculating about the girls' reasons for becoming involved with the drugs gang, he said: "All of these girls are just money hungry. They were all trying to have the best of everything in Ibiza."
And he rubbished the theory that the men the pair were working for are South American gangsters: "It's a gang in Spain. Who asked them to go down? A drug dealer in Spain who is going to benefit from it all."
Mr Knowles, who has since left Ibiza and is back in his home town of Runcorn in Cheshire, England, said several of Melissa's large group of friends knew the deal was about to take place.
"We knew what they were doing when they were going to mainland Spain. They just thought they were going to mainland Spain and when they got there they were told they were going somewhere else," he said.
"Nobody has come out to tell the truth since. People aren't sticking up for them because they are worried stuff might come out about themselves too. If my mate had done something and I knew he was totally innocent, I would be the first person out there protecting them."
Mr Knowles said he also believes the girls were used as a visible distraction, while a bigger consignment of drugs was smuggled through the airport.
"They were the diversion for the proper stuff going through. Anyone with common knowledge of the drugs world would know that you are not allowed to take food across international borders. So the girls should have known food packaging would have been suspicious. You have to ask yourself, why would they give them the drugs to carry in food packages? They were a decoy for the real thing."
Mr Knowles said he was due to return home from Ibiza in October but had to cut his holiday short due to media attention from the world's press.
"I have phone calls from every city in Australia. From about five cities in America. I've been on TV in Romania, Greece and Turkey. I should still be in Ibiza till October. The reason I come home was to stop all of this. After stories about me appeared in the paper, I turned my phone back on and it fucking went wild. I went down to the shop opened the papers in the news agent and my fucking face just dropped.
"Every story that's out there, at the very end, they say 'this fella has no association with drugs' which is clever reporting. But it's a bit fucking unfair on my behalf isn't it?"
Mr Knowles lost an eye in 1999 when he was nearly beaten to death by an alleged associate of crime boss John Palmer, known as Goldfinger, in a pub lavatory in Tenerife.
His alleged attacker, Michael Standing, 31, from Doncaster, South Yorkshire, was found hanged by his shirt in a courthouse cell near Las Palmas airport after being arrested.
Mr Knowles insists that – although he has a criminal past – he had turned over a new leaf.
"I had no connection whatsoever with this happening to the girls, only that I told them not to do it.
"Do I feel sorry for them? Why would I feel sorry for someone when I told [Melissa] not to do it? And now all my past has been brought up and spread all over the world. It's fucking ruined my life. I get stared at like an alien. Everyone thinking I should be locked up when I had nothing to do with it. I have not got one ounce of sympathy for them at all. Everyone makes mistakes but there is no need to ruin anyone else's life. I am an innocent person in all of this."
Monaghan-born Michaellla is being presented as a glamorous drugs mule in the Peruvian media. She is proving front-page news in the local tabloid press, which described her as "the Irish girl who looks like singer Amy Winehouse".
Michaella and Melissa face up to three years in the Virgin de Fatima prison – which is one hour north of Lima – before their trial.
They are being held on drugs charges after being stopped at Jorge Chavez Airport on August 6 while trying to board a flight for Madrid with 11kg of cocaine worth €1.7m in their bags.
An average of 112 drug mules are caught in Jorge Chavez Airport every year – but the girls' story of being forced to carry the drugs by an armed gang has generated massive international attention.
Meanwhile, the head of the Ibiza police unit responsible for countering organised crime, First Sergeant Alberto Arian Barilla, said he did not believe they were acting under duress.
"In my experience I don't think these two girls were forced to do this because – particularly when you go to South America – you need to pass several controls," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"The first thing you do is go to the passport control and say 'Listen, this is what is happening to me.' The policeman will react so I don't think they were forced."