Baron of the drug world: justice catches up with prolific Kildare-based smuggler
TO his neighbours in his plush neighbourhood, Philip Baron owed his conspicuous wealth to the improbable success of what he said was his company renting deck chairs on Spanish beaches.
The would-be beachware magnate, whose vast detached home backed onto the prestigious K-Club golf course in Kildare, did indeed have a hugely lucrative income from a business enterprise based in the Costa del Sol. But it had nothing to do with deck chairs.
Instead, the portly, balding Englishman was a kingpin in one of Britain's most prolific drug smuggling networks, masterminding the transportation of vast consignments of cannabis and cocaine from Spain to the UK's streets. He used the multi-million pound proceeds to fund a lavish lifestyle far beyond, he believed, the reach of the law.
Baron had been living in Straffan in north Kildare for more than 12 years in a luxury home at Bawnogues, New Road, outside the village and close to the exclusive K Club before he was extradited.
Today, justice finally caught up with the 57-year-old Mancunian when he pleaded guilty at Liverpool Crown Court to charges of conspiring to import 60 tonnes of cocaine, many tonnes of cannabis and money laundering. He will be sentenced in June.
The father-of-three, who used a reconciliation with his estranged daughter to pull her into his smuggling and money-laundering cartel, is the final suspect to be convicted following a five-year investigation by the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) which its officers say has "completely dismantled" one of Britain's top ten drugs rings.
Run exclusively by ex-pat Britons who thought they had hit on a clever scheme to freight drugs into the UK with impunity, the criminal network smuggled at least 110 tonnes of drugs estimated to be worth at least £350m over a 15-year period.
Operation Beath, the SOCA investigation, has resulted in the conviction of 29 individuals and jail sentences totalling nearly 200 years.
Steve Baldwin, SOCA's head of 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. Baron thought he was untouchable."
The closing down of the drugs network represents an important victory for SOCA, which has been previously criticised for its patchy track record in seizing the assets of crime gangs and will be subsumed in October into the new National Crime Agency. The seizures fit into a broader picture whereby consumption is falling in Britain, particularly among younger people, but the illegal drugs industry still costs Britain, according to SOCA's own estimate, some £17.6bn a year.
The painstaking inquiry, which involved police forces from Costa Rica to the Gardai, has yielded a rare insight into the innermost workings of a smuggling network from the code and nicknames used by the drug barons to communicate to their overseas trust funds and their extravagant spending habits.
Along with his co-conspirators, Baron, known as "4x" or "four by" because of his liking for luxury SUVs and who was personally linked to a 2.2-tonne consignment of cannabis as well as vast cocaine shipments originating from Costa Rica, had hit upon a novel way of bringing their illegal product into Britain.
Rather than going to the trouble of hiding drugs in suitcases or dumping bales of cannabis off boats, the network decided to use the services of freight and courier companies to brazenly send consignments to 12 addresses across Britain rented temporarily from office services companies.
At the rate of at least delivery one per month, drugs were packed into cardboard boxes and labelled as technical manuals or printed material being sent to unconnected and legitimate UK companies. Once they had arrived at their rented office address, another member of the gang would arrive to collect the consignment and distribute it to dealers in cities including Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. The gang would pack drugs into exports of machinery and even used a safe with a false compartment to shuttle cannabis and the resulting cash payments between Spain and the UK.
Suspicions were raised about gang members as far back as November 2008 when staff at a Cheltenham office services company targeted by the network became suspicious about the quantity of packages coming through its premises and alerted police. Recognising a rare opportunity to track drug imports along an entire supply chain, SOCA began the long process of tracing the network back to Bishop and another drug baron, Walter Callinan, like Baron a former trucker driver, who had moved from his native Stoke to a sprawling villa in Malaga named Vale Park after the home ground of his football team, Port Vale.
Mark, the SOCA officer who led the investigation, said the men had in effect set up a narcotics eco-system, feeding supplies into their own network as well as supplying other criminal outlets in Britain's £5bn illegal drugs market: "They were feeding this machine while also feeding their own crime gangs."
Bishop, originally from Bolton, maintained the facade of a respectable businessman, driving a Bentley GT Continental and attending black-tie dinners. His two children by his second marriage, both of them models, were provided for with trust funds set up by the network's money launderer in locations from Switzerland to Uzbekistan.
Neither of these children nor his current wife were involved with the drug business. But Bishop did not extend the same courtesy to his third child, Rachael, who was contacted by her father for the first time in many years after the birth of her first child about six years ago.
Within weeks, Bishop had enticed his estranged daughter into his criminal network, using her to make purchases on his credit card, ranging from paying his mobile phone bill to spending £60,000 on watches during a single visit to a jewellers. Rachael, who was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for laundering some £1m of drugs money, also arranged the purchase of her father's Bentley.
Mark, whose full name cannot be used, said Bishop had exploited his daughter. He said: "It is my belief that he has effectively manipulated her. I think she didn't fully understand or realise what was being done."
As the consignments continued to reach their destination and the funds started to pour into the bank accounts of the network's members, a sense of invincibility infected the main players. Bishop, who was arrested in March 2011, spent nearly two years fighting extradition to Britain, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court here before it was eventually thrown out.
Mark added: "The evidence is there to show that they hammered the UK's streets with drugs in the belief that they could live a life of impunity from abroad."
Paul Yearsley, a secondhand car dealer and close associate of Baron with a villa and a yacht in Spain, used his drug money to build a £2.7m house in the grounds of his own £5.5m mansion in Lancashire. When he came to sell the house, he agreed to a feature about the property in Lancashire Life magazine which appeared under the headline "Living the Dream".
Callinan, 60, known as Big Fella, who may have met Baron while they both drove HGVs in the 1990s, used his money to lavish up to £40,000 on the care of a racehorse, Rocking Dock.
He also financed the £1m-a-year gambling habit of his son, Ben, as well as undertaking all-expenses-paid trips, travelling first class, with other members of the syndicate to watch the England football team play abroad in locations from Azerbaijan to Japan for the 2002 World Cup.
The men used their love of football to develop a code language for conversations about drug deals - "United" meant English pound notes while "Gers", a reference to Rangers, signified the proceeds of trafficking in Scottish notes.
Ironically, it was the habit of Callinan, who was convicted of smuggling cannabis but not cocaine, and the network's principle money launderer - a former Barclay's IT worker called Malcolm "Sir Humphrey" Carle who gave up a £50,000 a job to work for the gang - of keeping meticulous records of their transactions that ultimately led to their downfall.
When police eventually raided Callinan's villa they found a 200-page ledger detailing every transaction for a total of 17 tonnes of powerful "skunk" cannabis sent to Britain over a 17 month period. The shipments accounted for six per cent of all cannabis sent to the UK in that time.
One-by-one the gang members were picked off by the investigation until Baron and Callinan, who was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment in 2011, were among the few major players left.
Shortly after his arrest, Callinan phoned his son in a recorded phone call which SOCA investigators admitted they had found "enjoyable".
The drugs overlord, who is currently serving time in the same prison as his son, said: "There is documentation, spreadsheets of monies collected off motorways... 100 grand, 60 grand, 80 grand. We're f****d mate, they've got that much documentation. F******g hell, the Pope wouldn't get out of this."