FRIENDS of a 62-year-old Irishman arrested by Spanish police following the seizure at sea of 500kg of cocaine say they believe he became innocently tied up in the drug-smuggling operation after helping American nationals with their yacht.
Kenny Coalter, originally from Omagh in Co Tyrone, had built up a haulage business, along with a property portfolio in Dublin, which he sold during the property boom, before moving to Spain and subsequently to Gran Canaria.
He has been held largely incommunicado in jail in Las Palmas after being arrested in July, along with two American men, an Australian woman and two Spaniards, following the seizure of 500kg of cocaine, gold bars and firearms on board the yacht, Maid of Orleans, off Gran Canaria in early July. The haul was valued at €135m.
Spanish police also froze Mr Coalter's bank account and he was only allowed a visit by a solicitor last Tuesday after his family had raised money on his behalf.
The yacht is registered to a man in his forties from Rhode Island, who was sailing the boat solo when it was intercepted by Spanish police at night. Police on Gran Canaria and Tenerife then arrested five others, including Mr Coalter.
Mr Coalter's friend Richard Grant, a former shipping and Aran Island ferry company owner, told the Sunday Independent that Mr Coalter was a highly thought-of and well-known member of the yachting community in Las Palmas.
As an engineer and electrician, he is well known for helping people fix their yachts in the marina, he said.
Mr Grant, who lives in Gran Canaria for part of the year, said Mr Kenny, who retired to the island, had recently been helping the owner of the Maid of Orleans after he arrived in Las Palmas marina with his ocean-going yacht last year.
He said Mr Coalter had no trappings of wealth and lived in a modest home with his second wife, Regina.
Mr Coalter is a motorbike enthusiast and in 2011 did a tour of Spain and France on his Harley Davidson with his wife, posting a blog during the tour. Mr Coalter owns a yacht, which is probably worth only around €30,000, Mr Grant said.
He said: "Kenny is a great guy and really popular here. He is well known as being a great help with other people's boats. He is a trained engineer and he can do electrics as well. He is always fixing people's boats and he looks after them when people are away.
"Recently, he helped these Americans who arrived here. They said they were doing business in Capa Verde and they were riding around here on big motorbikes. Kenny is mad about bikes.
"Kenny used his Spanish residency to register their motorbikes and a camper van. He did it totally innocent of their activities. In Spain, vehicle registry is strictly controlled and makes car fraud almost impossible, unlike in Ireland and the UK, where it is a pastime.
"I found out that as well as Kenny, several other local people have been imprisoned because of association with the Americans."
Mr Grant was only recently able to speak to Mr Coalter by phone.
"When I spoke to Kenny, he was very worried that his circle of friends here would think of him as a criminal. I assured him that every single person that knows him here understands exactly what happened.
"His mother in Tyrone has also been informed. He was very worried that she would find out from newspapers, as she is elderly.
"He has not received letters and the police have frozen his bank accounts. He got money sent from his family.
"He is dependent on the other prisoners for clothes, as he has been given nothing. I called to the prison to try and deliver clothes but was not permitted."
Mr Grant said that while there are suspicions that Cape Verde is a centre of trans-shipping cocaine from South America, Gran Canaria is heavily patrolled by police and customs cutters.
"The police are very thorough in Gran Canaria and their cutters are always on the look-out and check boats all the time. Everyone knows it would be mad to become involved in this kind of thing.
"We were all really shocked when we heard Kenny was arrested. Kenny doesn't need to be involved in this kind of thing.
"He built up a good business in Dublin and had several properties, which he sold at the height of the boom.
"He bought a pub in Spain, which he also sold during the boom, and moved here. He is a great sailor and does deep sea sailing in his yacht, Mistral of Ireland. Kenny is well-off.
"He was a successful businessman and worked hard all his life and had been enjoying his retirement with Regina."