(British Daily Mail),A retired British couple were jailed for eight years today after being found guilty of trying to smuggle £1million of cocaine into Europe on a £6,800 luxury Caribbean cruise.
Three judges convicted retired chef Roger Clarke, 72, and his ex-secretary wife Sue, 71, of drugs trafficking after a one-day trial at Lisbon’s main criminal court.
They were told they will serve their sentences in Portugal instead of being kicked out of the country and sent back to Britain to do their jail time as a state prosecutor had requested.
The pair, who live in Guardamar, Spain, were arrested on board cruise liner Marco Polo on December 4, 2018, after Portuguese police acting on a tip-off from Britain’s National Crime Agency discovered 9lbs of cocaine hidden inside the lining of four suitcases Mr Clarke had been handed on the sunshine island of St Lucia.
Mr Clarke, who held hands with his wife as they learnt their fate through a translator, whispered to her: ‘Jesus Christ, I was not expecting more than four years. I’ll be 80 when all this is over.’
As he left court in handcuffs with a police escort he told a reporter: ‘Someone should come to see me. I would like to tell the real story.’
Lead judge Margarida Alves told the Clarkes as she announced the court ruling in a short 20-minute hearing: ‘We are totally convinced you knew the contents of these four cases. You did what you did not because you are drug consumers but because you wanted to make an easy profit.’
Bromley-born Mr Clarke, insisted he had no idea the cocaine was hidden in the lining of four suitcases picked up on the paradise island of St Lucia.
Clarke told the court he was taking the suitcases back to the UK for a friend called Lee who had promised to pay him £800 and bragged he could sell them for a massive profit at upmarket stores such as Harrods.
He said UK-based Jamaican businessman ‘Lee’ and another associate called Dee, who he named in court as George Wilmot, had asked him to help negotiate the import of exotic fruit during Caribbean cruise stopovers and he brought the suitcases back for them as a sideline.
State prosecutor Manuela Brito rubbished his court claim he had been ‘betrayed’ by people he trusted and insisted the Brits were drug mules who used the four cruises they took to South America in two years as a front for their crimes.
And she questioned how they could pay for the cruises costing around £18,000 when they survived on a joint monthly pension of £1,150 from which the couple had to pay rent of £445.
Mr Clarke, who said after his arrest Lee paid for the last trip, but at trial claimed they had paid through ‘savings from hard work’, gave a cabin steward one of the old suitcases the couple boarded the Marco Polo with at the start of their cruise in Tilbury, Essex, and gifted the other two to the unidentified man he claimed handed him the new holdalls.
Mother-of-three Sue, originally from Wellingborough, Northampton, admitted in court she had been with her husband when they took two of the four cases containing the drugs onto their cruise ship, but insisted she only knew her husband’s business associates socially and never accompanied him when he negotiated fruit sales.
Mr Clarke confirmed in court they had both served prison sentences in Norway after being convicted in 2010 for trafficking 240 kilos of cannabis resin, claiming he had done a first drugs run to clear debts and was made to do more with his wife as cover after being threatened with violence by gangster paymasters if he stopped.
The smuggler, who was born Roger Button but changed his surname to Clarke after finishing his prison sentence, was jailed for nearly five year and Sue for three years nine months.
The expat couple lied to friends in Guardamar del Segura near Alicante where they lived and were the life and soul of local bars and members of a golf club, by telling they had served time in prison for cigarette smuggling.
They were warned ahead of last Tuesday’s trial they faced up to 12 years in jail. The crime they were convicted of carries a prison sentence of four to 12 years in Portugal.
The lead judge told the court today as she announced the verdict and sentence that Mr Clarke’s claims about helping his mystery business associates with their fruit and suitcase business ‘didn’t deserve any credibility’.
She added: ‘Any person involved in importing fruit would do their business directly instead of going through friends on cruise ships.
‘It’s not credible either that they would carry four cases for someone and throw away their existing cases with the justification they they’ve got no room in their cabin.’
Insisting their age and life experience should have made them suspicious about the idea of bringing holdalls back to Europe for someone else, especially as convicted drugs smugglers, she added: ‘This court is convinced the accused did what they did consciously and of their own free will and knew what they were carrying.’
Mr Clarke, dressed in a blue jumper, blue shirt and black trousers, shook his head in disbelief as he realised he was not departing court a free man, leaving one hand on his wife’s lap as he raised the other to his forehead.
His wife, wearing a white shirt with blue stripes and black trousers, clasped his hand tightly but made no comment.
They were led away from Lisbon’s Campus de Justica with a police escort and driven away to the same prisons where they have spent the last nine months – Roger to EP Lisboa which another Brit who was in jail with him has describe as the ‘worst’ prison in Europe and Sue to nearby Tires Women’s Prison.
Their defence lawyer Susana Paisana said she was planning to appeal.
The couple have already served nine months in custody which will be taken into account when fixing their release date.
Portuguese police insisted in court the couple had not cooperated by giving the information they needed to identify the criminals paying them to do drugs runs.
It is not known if British police or other crimefighting agencies have managed to identify the men Mr Clarke pointed the finger at.
Although the street value of the nine kilos of cocaine the couple were caught with was initially put at £2million, experts later valued it at around half that figure.
Portuguese prosecutors say they believe the Clarkes were making between £18,000 and £26,500 plus exes per cruise they took so they could smuggle drugs into Europe.
Britain’s NCA said they believed the couple were planning to offload the cocaine in Portugal but Policia Judiciaria inspector Carla Nunes told their trial she thought the final destination was the UK.
At an earlier hearing Mr Clarke told the three judges presiding over his case: ‘Some people knew we occasionally went on Caribbean cruises and asked me to negotiate to buy exotic fruit for shipment back to the UK.
‘I met people on certain islands to do that job. Then they asked me if I would bring some suitcases back because they could fetch a high price in places like Harrods, up to £1,500 per case.
‘They said they were going to use the cases as samples. It was something I did for them with no problems on earlier cruises and so I said ”yes” this time round.’
Describing his shock when Portuguese police knocked on their cabin at 5am after it docked in Lisbon and cut open their cases to find cocaine inside, he added: ‘I am so sorry we are here but we never ever knew drugs were in them.’
Explosive court papers released ahead of their trial allege the couple used their age as a front to hide their ‘illicit project to make easy money’.
The elderly pair were enjoying a jet set lifestyle of flights and cruises around the world worth £18,000 in two years despite a monthly disposable income of £885-a-month, papers found.
Mr Clarke told the court earlier this month: ‘I dealt with both Lee and Dee. They said they were having problems getting the fruit and as I had been a chef and knew the difference between good fruit and bad fruit, I said I would help.
‘The people I negotiated with in the Caribbean were the same ones who gave me the suitcases.
‘I’d give Lee or Dee our itinerary before our cruise and I’d be met dockside by a man with my name on a board who’d take me in a car to the pack-house to see the fruit.
‘I’d get £2,000 per container that ended up being shipped back to the UK. I wasn’t always asked to take back suitcases but when I was I got £2000 for each case.
‘The first time we picked up cases was in Antigua, twice we were given cases in St Lucia and once in Barbados.’
Prosecutor Manuela Brito asked why a man of Mr Clarke’s ‘age and life experience’ agreed to bring back suitcases given to him by strangers for someone whom he knew only by their first name.
‘I have known Lee and Dee for years,’ Mr Clarke insisted. My wife met them, Lee came out to our home in Spain with his wife on holiday.’We went to two weddings in Jamaica of the people importing the fruit. We thought they were genuine friends and we were just happy to do them a favour.’
The police chief accused the Clarkes in a damning pre-trial report of being drug mules who used their world cruises as a cover for their criminal activities.
Mr Clarke fought back tears as he told the court before the judges retired to consider their verdict last week: ‘We have lost everything now since we have been in custody.
‘They have stopped our pensions, my family has sold our car to raise money for our lawyers, we have lost all our possessions. We have nothing.’
The Clarkes were well known among the expat community on Spain’s Costa Blanca.
The couple lived in a whitewashed villa — complete with a roof terrace and turret — in the resort of Guardamar del Segura, south of Alicante.
Outside their home was a tongue-in-cheek nod to their Britishness: the statue of a garden gnome, gifted to Roger by friends on his 70th birthday.
Since arriving in the town, which is popular with retired Britons, about three years ago, Roger and Sue had fully embraced their new life.
He was a member of a golf society at a British-run bistro bar. She attended yoga and spinning classes. The two of them belonged to a wine club and were familiar faces at restaurants in Guardamar. They were typical expats, in other words. Or, so it seemed. However, anyone invited back to their home was surprised to find it was still practically empty.
‘They didn’t have any personal belongings at all, apart from their clothes,’ said one fellow expat. ‘It was very strange. They kept it as if it were a house they might want to leave in a hurry.’Appearances can be deceptive but surely never more so than in the case of the Clarkes, who were living in sheltered accommodation in Kent shortly before moving to Spain.
In fact, almost everything about them was a lie, it seems.
Mr Clarke told everyone in Guardamar del Segura he used to be a chef, among other things, in a Michelin-starred restaurant and owned two eateries in Benidorm.
Other friends say he is a former truck driver. It is far from certain Roger and Susan Clarke are even married. Our research has been unable to find any trace of a marriage certificate in this country.
Nor, more intriguingly, has their detention in Lisbon come as a great surprise to those who knew them in the UK.
‘When we heard that a British couple from Spain had been held for drug smuggling Roger’s and Susan’s names immediately came to mind,’ said a former friend. ‘We just thought, they are up to their old tricks again.’
That is because the pair have both been jailed on the continent before.
They were apprehended in Norway a decade ago after being found with drugs, the friend said. On that occasion, the pair managed to flee — but were later extradited back to the Scandinavian country, where they were put on trial.
Mr Clarke got five years while his ‘wife’ was given four years; she served the final 12 months in Holloway prison in North London.
How could anyone in Guardamar del Segura possibly have guessed that the elderly couple with a gnome outside their front door were convicted international drug dealers who were about to be arrested again?ven on the Costa, which has always attracted people with a past to hide, the story of Roger and Susan Clarke stands out.
One British couple who knew them in Guardamar claimed ‘Roger and Sue’ had offered them a free holiday in the Caribbean in return for carrying some bags, but they turned down the ‘dodgy’ offer.
Mrs Clarke has three children from her first marriage. She and her former husband, an actor, had been together for about 25 years when they split up.
She stayed in the marital home in Cheadle, Cheshire, to look after the children who were then in their late teens. Up until that point, she had been a ‘normal, loving mother’ to them, according to those who knew the family in the late Nineties.
Then she met Roger Clarke and she simply ‘abandoned’ them, it is claimed. ‘She just left the children with her husband and walked out on them,’ recalls a colleague at the now defunct holiday airline Air 2000 in Manchester, where Susan worked as a secretary. ‘She had to make a choice and she chose to start a new life with Roger and that did not include the children.
‘The children were in their teens and you can imagine they were very upset. They have had little to do with their mother ever since.
‘From what I have been told there has never been any attempt at a reconciliation on her part. She has remained very distant.’
The colleague said Roger Clarke was a ‘brash cockney’ who was ‘very cocksure’ of himself, and Susan was ‘smitten’ with him.
In the Costa Blanca, Mr Clarke acquired a nickname: ‘Mr Bull**** er’ because, depending on who he was talking to, he had been top chef or a paramedic or a member of the SAS.
But one story never changed: he said he still ran a business importing pineapples from the Caribbean to the UK, hence their frequent cruises there.
Plumber Paul Craven and his wife Pauline knew the Clarkes as well as anyone in Guardamar del Segura.
‘I started a job cleaning their villa near where we live part-time and they very quickly befriended us,’ said Pauline, 60, from Bolton, Lancashire. ‘We were flattered when they offered to treat us to a cruise. It was the dream of a lifetime.
‘Roger told me about his business importing pineapples and wanted me on the ship to keep his wife company. They offered to pay for everything.
‘Then they said we should buy some designer suitcases in the Caribbean because we could pick them up cheap and sell them for two or three times the price in Harrods once we got to the UK.
‘I didn’t think anything of it initially, but then they said we would have to put our clothes inside the suitcases.’ When Pauline discovered they didn’t even stock the suitcases in question in Harrods, she and her husband smelt a rat and politely turned down the free cruise.
‘I got asked to stop cleaning their home after that,’ Pauline added.
What a fortuitous decision that turned out to be.
Needless to say, Mr Clarke attracted attention on the cruise he and his wife embarked on with their friends.
Fellow passengers couldn’t help noticing Mr Clarke’s habit of pulling out wads of cash from his wallet and how he and Susan were reluctant to pose for holiday photos. When they sailed into St Lucia, Mr Clarke Clarke went ashore to buy the suitcases which Paul and Pauline Craven would have purchased had they been on the trip.
The same suitcases in which officers from the Policia Judiciaria found the high-grade cocaine.