9 September 2016
Three members of an organised crime group who tried to fly £12m worth of class A drugs into the UK have been given prison sentences totalling 52 years.
When the group’s rented helicopter flew from Belgium into Redhill Aerodrome in Surrey on Thursday 21 April this year it was being tracked as part of an investigation involving the National Crime Agency, Metropolitan Police, Border Force, and the Dutch and Belgian authorities.
The pilot, who was taking flying lessons in the UK and had booked one for later the same day, dropped under radar coverage deliberately and made an unscheduled stop in the Yalding area of Kent, before resuming the journey.
Shortly after he landed at Redhill, National Crime Agency officers moved in and arrested Dutch pilot Niels Wartenbergh, 28, along with passenger Ricardo Vorstenbosch, 27.
Meanwhile Metropolitan Police officers pulled over a hired silver BMW as it travelled towards London on the M26 motorway and arrested the driver Joseph Peel, 39, from North Kensington.
They recovered six holdalls from the boot containing around 43 kilos of cocaine and 60 kilos of heroin. Officers also seized more than 30 encrypted mobile phones that had been brought in with the drugs (below).
Tracking data supplied by the car hire company showed the vehicle had been in the Yalding area at the same time as the helicopter.
Later the same day Dutch police carried out a searches at the home of Vorstenbosch in Eindhoven in the Netherlands and uncovered a further 3 kilos of cocaine, a drug press, vacuum packing machines and a firearm.
NCA investigators found that Wartenbergh had been taking lessons to fly much larger aircraft.
All three men pleaded guilty to conspiring to import class A drugs and at Croydon Crown Court on Friday 9 September Wartenbergh and Vorstenbosch were sentenced to 18 years in prison each, while Peel was sentenced to 16 years.
Gary Fennelly, head of NCA’s Gatwick border investigation team, said:
“This organised crime group engaged the highly skilled services of a helicopter pilot to attempt to avoid border security by flying under the radar.
“In addition to recovering over 100 kilograms of class A drugs, the operation prevented crime on a much wider scale by denying the sale of drugs worth millions to the crime group, and preventing them from reinvesting the proceeds. It also stopped 30 high value encrypted phones reaching a criminal marketplace where they would have been used to evade detection.
"We are actively targeting criminals who try to use small airfields as a way into the UK. Working with our partners in Border Force, the MPS and law enforcement in Belgium and the Netherlands we are determined to protect the public from the harm caused by serious and organised crime.”
Detective Sergeant Neil Turner of the Met’s Special Projects Team said:
“This operation highlights the successful disruption to both national and international crime networks that can be achieved when law enforcement agencies work in partnership.
“As a result of this collaboration a huge amount of Class A drugs will not be available for sale on London streets."
Sam Bullimore, Head of Cargo Targeting for Border Force said:
“Border Force works tirelessly to identify and target suspicious activity in our skies. This is yet another example of our intelligence-led approach reaping significant rewards.
“Working with our partners, nationally and internationally, this operation has allowed us to protect communities and stop dangerous drugs reaching our streets.”
The NCA is a partner in Project Pegasus, a multi-agency campaign encouraging people living and working close to small airfields to report unusual activity associated with general aviation.
Anyone with information about unusual activity can report it to their local police force on 101 or anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.