March 23 2010
– Ten British gangsters have been arrested in France after a vast drug and money-laundering operation was smashed.
The men and women were seized at isolated properties in the Dordogne region, which is hugely popular with UK expatriates and tourists.
Officers from both sides of the Channel raided upmarket homes in two villages near Perigueux and found vast quantities of drugs and cash.
The criminals claimed the millions of used notes came from Premier League football ‘transfer bungs’.
Much of it had been transported in reinforced hidden compartments in luxury cars. It was being used to buy chateaux and land in the area.
The arrests are linked to an investigation into Darren Owen, brother of EastEnders actor Sid Owen, who has been charged with smuggling £1million of cocaine into Britain. He is currently remanded in custody.
Police say most of the money came from bringing cocaine into Britain, but French investigating officer Guy Sapata did not rule out the Premier League link.
‘Organised crime is involved in all kinds of activities. There could be an overlap between drugs, money-laundering and big money transfers,’ he said.
Some of the biggest clubs in England have been accused of using under-the-table cash to tempt players from France.
Some of those arrested claimed to have moved to France ‘for the good life’, said an investigating officer.
One claims he was regularly receiving cash payments for his work with UK-based football agents.
The enquiry began in May 2009 when one of the accused – named only as Stephen C – was arrested in a car travelling from Narbonne, on the south coast, to the city of Toulouse, in the south west.
Police found half-a-million pounds worth of used notes in a hidden compartment in the boot of his Mercedes, along with traces of cocaine.
The Englishman had been put under surveillance, and the police established that he had made at least 20 ‘suspicious’ journeys delivering money around Europe.
Cocaine is thought to have been delivered from Spain, after arriving in boats from Africa, said police.
But there is also an allegation that some of the cash was linked to agents or other parties involved in the lucrative – and notoriously unregulated – trade in footballers.
‘Dordogneshire’: Police raided the gang in the Dordogne region of France, above, where they were living as British ex-pats who moved ‘for a better life’
‘He told us that all the money came from professional footballer transfers in England,’ added the investigating officer.
‘Those arrested say they had links with big names in the world of Premiership football.’
Stephen C was placed in custody under suspicion of laundering money associated with Britain’s cocaine trade.
During many months of questioning he led detectives to the pretty villages of Augignac and Champniers-et-Reilhac, close to Perigueux, in the Dordogne.
All of those involved were blending in with the thousands of Britons who have set up homes in one of the most unspoiled regions of Europe – one which is frequently referred to as ‘Dordogneshire’ because of its popularity with what the French call ‘Anglo Saxons’.
It was in Augignac, which has a population of just 850, that two suspects named as Mickael K and Sophie S were arrested on February 24th this year.
‘They owned a villa estimated to be worth around 175,000 euros, and a second home in Charente, as well as agricultural land worth around 150,000 euros,’ said another police source.
‘They’d also invested in three plots of land in another part of the Dordogne,’ he added.
Mark B, another local resident, is considered to be a ‘mastermind’ behind the operation, and was arrested during a visit to a London clinic on February 14th.
When police raided his parents’ home at Champniers-et-Reilhac, which has a population of just 500, they found a sky blue DB7, and a Mercedes with a hidden compartment identical to the one found in the car in which Stephen C was arrested.
‘The cars were typical of the kind of flash, luxury goods these suspects have been using,’ said the police source. ‘They had stacks of money and were regularly investing in land and luxury properties. They are also believed to have been investing in Cyprus’.
The officer said Mark B’s parents had already offered £50,000 in cash to pay for their son’s defence.
He added: ‘All those arrested are being questing pending court appearances.’
The investigation is being coordinated by Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) and the Toulouse judicial police.
– Peter Allen