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The mysterious case of the drug-smuggling fishermen

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Media captionLawyer Emily Bolton asks: Why was there no trace of cocaine?

In 2011, a group of men from the Isle of Wight was given a combined 104-year prison sentence for masterminding a £53m drug smuggling operation. Does new evidence suggest they were innocent?

"It's like living in a ridiculous police drama," Sue Beere says.

Her husband Jonathan Beere is serving 24 years in a high-security prison in the Midlands, convicted of organising a complex operation to smuggle a quarter of a tonne of cocaine into the UK.

She vividly remembers the day police came to arrest him in January 2011: "They literally came through the door in the morning... a troop of men."

Image copyright Serious organised crime agency
Image caption Police mug shots, from top-left: Daniel Payne, Zoran Dresic, Jonathan Beere, Scott Birtwistle, Jamie Green

All she could think was that they had made "some stupid mistake" over his identity, and found the wrong man.

She says local police stopped to comfort her young son, saying: "Don't cry nipper, be brave, daddy will be home tonight." But Jonathan Beere has not been back home since that day, and has so far served five years in jail.


Find out more

Watch video journalist Jim Reed's full film about this case on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programmewebsite.


Two of the other men, skipper Jamie Green and Zoran Dresic, also received 24-year sentences, while Daniel Payne received 18 years and Scott Birtwistle 14. They had been charged with conspiring to import Class A drugs.

Now a new lawyer, Emily Bolton, is working on their case.

She founded the Innocence Project New Orleans in the US, which has so far freed 25 prisoners, and has recently set up a new charity in the UK - the Centre for Criminal Appeals - to specialise in miscarriage of justice investigations.

What happened in the Channel?

On 29 May 2010, a small fishing boat - the Galwad-Y-Mor - left the Isle of Wight on what the crew claim was a routine trip to catch lobster and crab in the Channel.

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Media captionSister of boat's skipper: It was 'not unusual' for them to fish mid-Channel

That night, a large drugs operation led by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) - known as Operation Disorient - was taking place, involving surveillance planes, a Border Agency patrol boat and police lookouts along the coast.

The authorities had intelligence that cocaine was being smuggled to Europe from South America on giant cargo ships, such as the container vessel MSC Oriane - which was one of nine from Brazil that appeared to be of particular interest.

At about midnight, the ship and the fishing boat briefly came close together - though exactly how close is disputed. The ship went on towards the European mainland, and the Galwad continued home, past Freshwater Bay - the western tip of the Isle of Wight.

The next day, at this same bay, a member of the public spotted 11 sacks tangled around a buoy - each packed with a pure form of cocaine.

The prosecution's case was that the sacks were pushed off the side of the container ship for the fishermen to retrieve from the sea, before taking them to the bay to hide or be picked up by another vessel.

Image copyright Colin Millgarth
Image caption MSC Oriane

But Ms Bolton disputes this.

"What the police are alleging [is that the Galwad] was able to pinpoint and locate 11 bags of cocaine in the English Channel, in shipping lanes, in the middle of the night in a storm," she says.

"We think we now have the evidence proving this simply couldn't have taken place."

Navigational data

At the trial, the prosecution relied on navigational data taken from on-board computers on the two vessels, which purported to show that - around midnight - the Galwad crossed the Oriane's wake. There would have been a short window for the 11 sacks of cocaine to be transferred to the fishing boat.

However, Ms Bolton says the prosecution's expert witness left out key plot points and used damaged data.

Her new analysis suggests the paths of the boats were never closer than 100m from one another, and that the sea's drift would have taken the drugs away from the fishermen's boat.

"If that intersection between the vessels never took place, there is no case," she says.

Image caption The men's fishing boat, the Galwad, has not seen the sea for years

The prosecution also points to a series of calls made to and from the satellite phone on the Galwad while it was in the Channel, suggesting someone on shore was co-ordinating the drugs drop. The defence said the timing was a coincidence and someone was just checking on the health of one of the other fishermen who was seasick - a migrant from Eastern Europe.

No traces of cocaine were ever found on the fishing boat, despite it being searched with specialised equipment.

The container ship, the Oriane, was also searched when it next touched British shores a few days later, but no trace of drugs was ever found. No-one on the Oriane was arrested.

Cliff-top surveillance

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Media captionPolice haul in cocaine with a street value of £53m, found off the Isle of Wight

The Galwad spent 18 hours sailing back to its home port of Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight. On the way it stopped for about an hour in Freshwater Bay - its crew say to fish for mackerel.

That evening, the first arrests were made.

At this point though, the drugs had not been discovered. This happened the following day, when a member of the public called to say he had spotted 11 multicoloured bags floating in Freshwater Bay.

This timeframe, Ms Bolton says, was crucial.

At the time the fishing boat was said to have hidden the drugs in Freshwater Bay, two officers from Hampshire police were watching from the cliff tops as part of the police operation.

In the officers' logs before the drugs were found, they recorded someone on the fishing boat throwing six or seven items overboard at intervals - which the fishermen say could have been rubbish bags full of old bait.

But the next day, after the drugs were discovered, the police lookouts changed the official log - as they are allowed to do - to clarify what they saw.

In the new version they reported 10 to 12 items the size of a holdall, tied together in a line and deployed from the boat followed by a red floating buoy - a description that almost exactly matched the drugs that were picked up by the police boat.

Image caption Freshwater Bay, where the drugs were found

The two police surveillance officers then told different accounts in court.

One said he was convinced of the significance of the holdalls at the time; the other said he thought little of it until after the drugs were found the next day.

As a result, the new defence team claims the accounts cannot be relied upon.

"These are officers that are trained to get the details right every single time - and we are not talking about small details," Ms Bolton explains.

"We are talking about big changes, about what they saw and also where they saw it from."

Image copyright Police footage

At trial, both police lookouts were adamant they had seen 10 to 12 sacks thrown off the fishing boat along with a buoy.

After making the first log entry, they said they had seen extra bags thrown off the boat, so the amended version was the full picture of everything they had recorded that day.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission did look into the case and, though it found inconsistencies in the officers' evidence, decided it was not enough to show they had fabricated their accounts. Complaints against the two officers were dismissed.

Hampshire Police also said they had no ongoing complaints relating to this investigation.

Fresh appeal?

Soca, now rebranded as the National Crime Agency (NCA), said at the time that the operation had stopped a huge amount of cocaine from reaching the streets of the UK.

Ms Bolton's new evidence has been passed to the criminal cases review commission, which will decide if the five men can launch a fresh appeal.

She believes there was a motive for Soca to implicate the five men.

Image caption The view from Cowes, Isle of Wight

"At this stage in the investigation it appears Operation Disorient really needed to get a result. They had committed a lot of resources to this investigation and needed someone to be responsible, and they started focusing on the fishing boat.

"From then on, they interpreted all evidence that came before them as pointing to guilt, and meanwhile ignored or didn't seek other evidence which pointed in the opposite direction."

The NCA said it could not comment while that investigation was ongoing.

Hampshire Police said: "It would not be appropriate to comment on operational matters led by another agency [the NCA]."

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