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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 April 2007, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
'UK's richest criminal' brought to justice
By Chris Summers
BBC News

One of Britain's richest criminals has finally been convicted after years on the run. Brian Wright was found guilty of conspiring to import millions of pounds' worth of cocaine into Britain and imprisoned for 30 years. But who is he?

Brian Wright pictured on the balcony of his London flat
Brian Wright was kept under surveillance by Customs

So scared were the authorities that Brian Wright would try to nobble the jury at Woolwich Crown Court, that a special screen was constructed to protect them from the gaze of all but the judge and lawyers.

Certain facts were not mentioned to the jury.

They were not told his underworld nickname was The Milkman because "he always delivered".

It was not pointed out at the trial that he had been investigated by the BBC's Panorama team, and had been named in another TV programme as Britain's Richest Criminal with an estimated fortune of at least 100m.

The jury was not reminded about Wright's years spent hiding in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus - a self-proclaimed state which is only recognised by Turkey - where in 2002 he was tracked down by a crew from Panorama.

Nor did they hear allegations about his involvement in bribing jockeys and fixing races.

Racing diary

The trial heard Wright was a prolific gambler, who claimed he derived his wealth from betting on horses.

When Customs officers raided a house in Lymington, Hampshire, in September 2006 they discovered Wright's Channel 4 racing diary, Michael Parroy QC, prosecuting, told the court.

In it were the phone numbers not only of members of his drugs gang but, as Mr Parroy put it: "Names you will be familiar with if you have anything to do with racing".

Bags of cocaine
The operation began in September 1996 when the Sea Mist was intercepted at Cork
Customs officers travelled to Ireland, the US, the Caribbean, Australia and Venezuela as part of the inquiry
It triggered six separate trials, one of which was one of the longest in British criminal history
The saga ended with the conviction of Brian Wright in March 2007

In December 2002 Wright, his son Brian, and three other men, including a former jockey, were banned from all British racetracks after evidence emerged he had been paying jockeys for inside information and may have influenced the result of races.

But while he enjoyed the "sport of kings" and frequently bet tens of thousands of pounds on individual races, it was drugs which brought in the big money.

In 1996 Customs launched Operation Extend in a bid to smash Wright's operation, which was eventually estimated to have brought 360m worth of cocaine into the UK.

Contraband cargo

Customs investigators say Operation Extend was "without parallel" in British history.

The spark for the investigation was a spot of freak weather in the Atlantic Ocean.

In September 1996 the skipper of a yacht called Sea Mist was heading from the Caribbean to the English south coast with a cargo of 599kg (1,320lb) of cocaine hidden in a dumb waiter below decks.

the Sea Mist in Cork harbour
A huge consignment of drugs was found on board the Sea Mist

The Sea Mist was blown off course and was forced to seek shelter in Cork Harbour in the Republic of Ireland.

Suspicious customs officers discovered the stash of drugs and the skipper, John Earl Ewart, was later jailed.

At Wright's trial Mr Parroy said the cocaine on board was between 65 and 85% pure and was marked with different packaging, one of which was the "10 of diamonds" brand.

Tip of the iceberg

The Irish authorities tipped off their British counterparts who realised the Sea Mist was only the tip of the iceberg.

The investigation led them to Wright, who had a villa in Spain and a luxury flat in west London's exclusive Chelsea Harbour, and enjoyed champagne trips to Cheltenham races.

But Wright had no legitimate sources of income and kept a suspiciously low official profile with no bank account, tax records or national insurance documents.

Customs officers put his Chelsea flat under surveillance and followed him as he met up with his son, Brian - who was later convicted - and other co-conspirators for meetings in plush London hotels.

Brian Wright in N Cyprus
Wright was tracked down to Northern Cyprus by BBC's Panorama team

Slowly they built up a picture of Wright's operation.

He bought huge quantities of cocaine in Venezuela and loaded it on board various yachts which would sail, via staging posts in the Caribbean, to the British Isles.

The consignments would then be offloaded on to locally-registered boats which would not arouse any suspicion.

Many of these yachts would dock at Poole in Dorset, from where the drugs were distributed around Britain, usually after being cut with sugar and other substances to maximise their profit.

In February 1999, just as Customs prepared to swoop, Wright vanished.

He later surfaced in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a self-proclaimed state which is only recognised by Turkey.

Because it has no diplomatic relations with Britain there is no extradition treaty, a loophole which Wright exploited like fugitive tycoon Asil Nadir before him.


In 2002 a Panorama film crew traced Wright to the small town of Lapta.

Wright laid low for another three years, but in March 2005 he travelled to Marbella in southern Spain where, after a tip-off by British Customs officers, he was arrested and later extradited.

Some of the other convicted members of the gang
At least 15 people have been convicted for their part in drug smuggling

Wright's conviction brings Operation Extend to an end.

But Customs officers are expected to embark on civil proceedings in an attempt to confiscate millions of pounds.

Wright faces spending the rest of his life in jail and will have to fight a rearguard action to retain his criminal fortune.

map of the key places in Brian Wright case
1 Huge quantities of cocaine were bought in Venezuela
2 Grenada, Guadeloupe and other islands used as staging posts
3 In September 1996 drugs were found on board the Sea Mist
4 Most of the drugs were brought ashore in Poole Harbour
5 He spent years in hiding in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
6 Wright was arrested in Spain in 2005 and eventually extradited

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