Fake ambulance drug smugglers to be sentenced


Three Dutchmen who plotted to smuggle drugs into the UK using fake ambulances will be sentenced today.

One was found guilty and two admitted their roles in an audacious £1.6 billion operation which saw huge amounts of contraband brought across the Channel under the noses of British police.

Prosecutors said "right-hand man" Leonardus Bijlsma was part of a "lucrative criminal conspiracy" concealed from border officials with the aid of bogus paramedic uniforms and fake patients on crutches.

Bijlsma, 55, of Hoofddorp, Amsterdam, denied the charges throughout a two-week trial at Birmingham Crown Court, but was found guilty last month.

Two other men from Holland, Olof Schoon, said to be the conspiracy's central player, and Richard Engelsbel, had already admitted the conspiracy charge and will be sentenced alongside their compatriot.

A fourth man, 28-year-old Dennis Vogelaar, of Vijfhuizen, Amsterdam, was acquitted by the jury of smuggling class A contraband.

All the men were all arrested near a scrapyard in Smethwick, West Midlands in June this year, after Schoon and Bijlsma had driven to the rendezvous in a hire car.

A Mercedes ambulance driven to the scene by Vogelaar and Engelsbel was also seized and found "rammed" to the roof with cocaine, heroin and ecstasy, according to the Crown.

When officers from the National Crime Agency broke open the rear of the vehicle they found seven hides concealed behind riveted metal plates into which were neatly stacked and wrapped hundreds of packets of drugs.

In all there was 193kg of cocaine with a street value of more than £30 million, and 74kg of heroin worth £8 million in individual deals.

Officers also found thousands of ecstasy tablets and 2kg of MDMA crystal powder.

Robert Davies, prosecuting, said Dutch authorities tipped off by British colleagues uncovered "a fleet" of similarly adapted ambulances at two yards in the Netherlands believed to have been used to transport a "staggering" amount of contraband.

He described it as "an absolutely enormous amount of class A drugs".

Further analysis revealed that at least 45 trips were made in 14 months to locations in Essex, London, Manchester, Merseyside, West Yorkshire and the Midlands, with the final trip in June.

It is estimated that the operation may have seen £420 million in high-purity drugs smuggled into the UK, with an estimated street value worth four times that amount.

Vogelaar was cleared after the window cleaner and qualified HGV driver told the court he had no idea the contraband was in the back of his vehicle.

Jurors were told 38-year-old Schoon, and Engelsbel, 51, had already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to smuggle drugs into the UK.