Where did Britain's cocaine king stash his cash?
Where did Britain’s cocaine king stash his cash? He was called The Milkman because he always delivered in a racket that earned him up to £600m – and now he’s out of jail on early release, one tantalising question remains…
Lying low in a run-down London bail hostel this week, after being surprisingly released from prison halfway through his 30-year sentence, Brian Wright may have reflected on his fluctuating fortunes.
During the Nineties he built the biggest drugs empire Britain has seen, buying vast amounts of cocaine from Colombia’s murderous Medellin cartel and smuggling it into South Coast ports.
He was known as The Milkman because, it was said, he ‘always delivered’.
Might he now try to resurrect his industrial-scale smuggling operation? After all, as a well-placed source told me, during his 13 years inside he maintained his impressive physique, and ‘mentally he’s still sharp as a tack’. He is pictured on the balcony of his Chelsea Harbour flat
Reputed to have amassed between £100 million and £600 million, he kept sumptuous homes in Chelsea Harbour, the Surrey countryside and on the Costa del Sol, entertained Establishment figures in his hospitality box at Royal Ascot and rubbed shoulders with celebrities including Michael Caine and Frank Sinatra.
Wright was then so powerful that when he arrived at Tramp, the London nightclub, to find Clint Eastwood and Jerry Hall occupying his favourite table, he had only to wink at the manager to have the pair discreetly moved.
With his tousled dark hair, lantern jaw and million-dollar smile, the charismatic cocaine baron might easily have passed for a film star himself, though the common perception was that he had made his millions as a highly successful horse-racing gambler.
Lying low in a run-down London bail hostel this week, after being surprisingly released from prison halfway through his 30-year sentence, Brian Wright may have reflected on his fluctuating fortunes
When Wright’s friend, the Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning jockey Graham Bradley, asked him what he really did to have made so much money, he replied tersely in his West London brogue: ‘This ’n’ that.’ Wisely, Bradley never raised the matter again.
In 1999, however, The Milkman finally couldn’t deliver. His international drug-running gang, the Wright Organisation, was smashed after a six-year Customs and Excise investigation and 16 of his henchmen were jailed for a combined total of more than 200 years.
Although Wright himself evaded capture, fleeing to Northern Cyprus — which has no extradition treaty with the UK — before sneaking into Spain, in 2005 he, too, was caught.
After he was convicted of conspiring to import cocaine, his barrister, Jerome Lynch, QC, told Woolwich Crown Court that, as Wright was then aged 61, his 30-year sentence meant he would ‘probably die’ in prison. Yet this maudlin pronouncement has proved well wide of the mark.
For according to a well-placed source, as he sauntered through the gates of HM Prison Whitemoor, in Cambridgeshire, on April 14, The Milkman, now 73, looked remarkably spry.
This week, he has been reunited — we must hope at a safe distance — with his bodybuilder son ‘Briany’, 52, who served a 16-year jail sentence for being part of his drugs gang.
Soon he hopes to see his daughter, Joanne, and meet his grandchildren for the first time.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, those in Wright’s tight-knit inner sanctum have been effusively celebrating his freedom.
‘Unbelievable feeling for you and his family and friends,’ one gushes. ‘Can’t put into words the emotions we’re all feeling,’ replies his daughter, adding a smiling emoji festooned with red love-hearts.
Glamorous old photos of Wright with his late wife Josie, who died soon after he was jailed in 2007, have also been posted. Another faded snap shows him with the comedian Jim Davidson, with whom he jointly owned a racehorse in his heyday.
Davidson, who chose Wright to be a godfather to his son, appeared as a character witness at Wright’s trial, describing the allegation that he was a drug trafficker as ‘laughable’. The former England footballer and racing trainer Mick Channon also spoke on his behalf.
In less troubled times, Wright’s early release would have caused quite a stir, for he flooded Britain with drugs that caused untold misery and destroyed countless lives.
As he is over 70 and underwent a triple heart bypass while on the run, placing him in the Covid-19 ‘vulnerable’ category, the suspicion was that he might have been freed under the controversial scheme whereby 4,000 prisoners were to have been let out to prevent the disease spreading through jails.
However, this plan was scrapped just before Wright was let out, and the authorities say he simply became eligible for release under licence midway through his sentence.
What is very unusual, though, is that he spent no time in an open prison but was held in Category A Whitemoor until the last day of his sentence.
Whatever the reason for this, the revelation that The Milkman is no longer under lock and key invites some pressing questions.
Might he now try to resurrect his industrial-scale smuggling operation? After all, as a well-placed source told me, during his 13 years inside he maintained his impressive physique, and ‘mentally he’s still sharp as a tack’.
And what became of his once-colossal fortune? At a confiscation of assets hearing after his conviction, Customs and Excise demanded that he pay back £45 million.
Claiming he was stony broke, however, Wright refused to attend court. ‘His position is, he has nothing and no matter how much he says it, that will not be accepted,’ said his barrister Mr Lynch. ‘Everything he had was paid for in cash, and rented.
‘The approach the Crown has taken is so unrealistic that it is pointless engaging — and he takes the view that it almost doesn’t matter. He is nearly 62 years of age and is serving 30 years. He will not see the light of day.’
Alluding to the death of Wright’s wife the previous year, Mr Lynch asked rhetorically whether a man with £45 million would have allowed her to spend her last days in a ‘rented Spanish apartment’.
His plea was successful. Judge Moss ordered Wright to hand over just £2.3 million within 12 months, or have his sentence increased by an additional ten years. The drug lord paid up.
If we believe the source, having sold his £1.5 million Spanish villa (which he mockingly named El Lechero, Spanish for The Milkman) and all his other assets to pay off the debt, he really is ‘on his uppers, totally skint’.
But the insider is equally sure Wright won’t live out his life in penury. ‘He’ll be looked after by the same people he took care of when he had money,’ he told me, claiming the ‘Irish mob’ would be among Wright’s main benefactors.
Can all this be true? Or has this shadowy figure, who has never held a bank account or used a credit card, and doesn’t even have a National Insurance number (in the words of one investigator, ‘It was is if he didn’t exist’), secretly salted away his millions?
We can only guess; for throughout Brian Brendan Wright’s life, nothing has ever been quite as it appeared.
When the boats came close to the British coast, the drugs were transferred to small yachts and motor-cruisers — borrowed from Wright’s unsuspecting friends in the affluent ‘Howards’ Way’ set — then dropped at small ports in Hampshire, Dorset and Devon
Born in Ireland, he moved to London with his parents and many siblings in 1958, when he was 12, settling among the working-class Irish community in Cricklewood.
He often played truant from school and was ‘a bit of a tearaway’ until his ‘wings were clipped’, as he once put it, by a spell in borstal.
Desperate to move up in the world, he saw his chance in his teens, when he earned a few pounds by running to the bookmakers to place bets for local workmen.
Seeing how much they lost and how little they knew about racing, he began to study the sport and make small wagers, often winning.
His first big payday came in 1964, when he staked £350 on the St Leger and scooped £5,000. By the Eighties, he was making tens of thousands on the turf and was a familiar —_ and very popular — face at racetracks around the country.
To his many high-profile friends in the racing fraternity, his extraordinary success came down to encyclopaedic knowledge and brilliant judgment.
But in Racing In The Dock, his definitive book on corruption in horse racing during that period, author Richard Griffiths described how Wright orchestrated an audacious fixing racket.
Jockeys riding favourites were bribed to lose; horses were injected with ‘jungle juice’ that slowed them down and allowed outsiders through that Wright had backed to win.
Former jockey and trainer Dermot Browne claims in the book that he rigged races for Wright from the late Eighties.
When Browne found the gangster’s cohorts in the Goodwood stables armed with syringes, he wanted out. But he was frogmarched at gunpoint to see Wright — reclining at the bar in a swanky London hotel — and accepted £10,000 to run the doping squad. He had little option.
The scam rolled on undetected for years — as Wright admitted in a lengthy interview given to the News Of The World from his overseas hideout in 2002, in a cynical attempt to portray himself as a ‘mere’ racing cheat rather than the kingpin of a drugs ring.
Wright told the paper he ‘sweetened’ jockeys by introducing them to his showbiz friends — none of whom had any idea he was a crook — and supplying them with top-class prostitutes.
‘If I need a rider to win or lose, he did. If I wanted to fix a race, I could,’ he boasted.
‘People think I made my money from being a drug baron. Well I didn’t. I made a fortune from gambling.’
Although Wright is banned from any involvement in racing until 2023, there are fears that The Milkman may see it as a cash cow again now he has been released. This fear prompted the British Horseracing Authority to issue a reminder this week that he remains persona non grata.
But his claim that he made all his money from horseracing was far from the truth.
By 1998, when investigative journalists exposed him as the Mr Big behind racing’s biggest scandal, Wright had moved on to far richer pickings.
For the man who, in the words of his friend Graham Bradley, always carried ‘a wad of cash thick enough to choke a donkey’, placing huge cash bets had simply become a means to launder the millions he was making from the drugs trade.
He seized the chance to do business with the Medellin cartel after being introduced to Ronald Soares, a Brazilian with connections to the ruthless Colombians. Whether this was before or after their leader, Pablo Escobar, was shot dead in 1993 is unclear.
In any event, a deal was struck. The cartel would load watertight sacks of cocaine onto a light plane and parachute them onto the decks — or within grasping range — of boats sent by the Wright Organisation to a rendezvous point in the Caribbean.
When the boats came close to the British coast, the drugs were transferred to small yachts and motor-cruisers — borrowed from Wright’s unsuspecting friends in the affluent ‘Howards’ Way’ set — then dropped at small ports in Hampshire, Dorset and Devon.
In that way, they evaded Customs checks for years. The resulting profits were split 50-50 with the Medellin cartel.
As one investigator later remarked: ‘It was the most sophisticated and successful global cocaine organisation ever to target the UK.’ One newspaper reported that the street value of the trafficked drugs topped £1 billion.
The supply line might still have been running today but for the forces of Nature.
In 1996 a storm blew one of Wright’s ‘mother ships’, the Sea Mist, off course and it was forced to take shelter in Cork, Ireland.
During a routine search, Customs officers found 599kg of cocaine, worth £80 million, inside the welded-up cargo lift. This clearly was not a one-off smuggling operation. So began Operation Extend, the painstaking covert investigation that brought Wright down.
The cartel would load watertight sacks of cocaine onto a light plane and parachute them onto the decks — or within grasping range — of boats sent by the Wright Organisation to a rendezvous point in the Caribbean. These cocaine blocks were found at Leigh-on-Sea
It reached its denouement in 1998, when 427kg more of the white powder, with a street value of £61 million, was found in a lock-up garage in Essex and on a farm in Middlesex. But it would be a further seven years before the semi-literate yet fiendishly clever criminal mastermind was behind bars.
Whether out of fear or genuine admiration, you will be hard pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about Brian Wright. Likeable, personable, generous and charismatic are among the adjectives former friends use to describe him.
‘Whatever the truth about Brian’s morals, he’s a very nice guy,’ Bradley, who was banned from racing for five years for passing inside information to Wright, wrote in his autobiography.
‘If he walked in here now and sat down at this table, you’d like his company. I’m just disappointed that his business was actually what it was. It does seem as if the case against him was well-proven — it would be good to hear his side of the story.’
According to one source, he was equally popular and well-respected in prison, where his status was enhanced by reports of his £600 million fortune — rumours he did nothing to dispel. Some even regarded him as a latter-day Robin Hood whose crimes had harmed nobody.
Given some of the characters with whom he has been linked down the years, this seems a fanciful notion.
They include the Great Train Robber-turned-drug peddler Charlie Wilson, who was shot dead at his Marbella villa in 1990, and Roy Adkins, who was alleged to have ordered the hit, and was himself murdered months later.
There are also one or two intriguing names among his children’s Facebook friends — a female member of the Arifs, the fearsome Turkish crime family who for many years rivalled the Adams for supremacy in London’s underworld, for example.
Small wonder that The Milkman’s friends are confident he will live comfortably now he is free.
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