9 April 2018
National Crime Agency (NCA) investigators are appealing for information to trace the head of an organised crime group who disappeared before standing trial for drugs offences.
Richard Wakeling, 51, from Brentwood, was sentenced in his absence today to 11 years in prison for orchestrating the attempted importation of liquid amphetamine with a street value of around £8 million in April 2016.
Three other men also stood trial at Chelmsford Crown Court, including Lesley Muffett, 59, who drove the lorry carrying the drugs, and gang members Stuart Davidson, 65, and Darren Keane, 34.
All four men were found guilty of conspiring to import drugs on Friday 6 April following a 12 week trial.
NCA officers began their investigation after plastic drums (below right) carrying the liquefied drugs were discovered by Border Force on Muffett’s truck as he attempted to board a train through the Channel Tunnel on 9 April 2016.
He was transporting furniture from Italy, but stopped at Ternat in Belgium where phone evidence showed he was directed by fellow trucker Davidson to collect the drugs.
The entire importation was set up by Wakeling, who was in touch with drug suppliers in Belgium and the Netherlands, and liaised with Keane and Davidson to arrange the journey.
Evidence showed both Muffett and Davidson had taken similar journeys previously, and officers believe the group had organised previous importations before the April 2016 seizure.
Shortly before their trial started Wakeling disappeared. NCA investigators have established that he took a bus from Heathrow to Glasgow on 5 January, and then a ferry from Stranraer to Belfast the following day.
He is thought to have strong family links in Thailand.
A warrant was issued for his arrest on the first day of the group’s trial.
On Monday 9 April the Wakeling was given an 11 year sentence, Darren Keane nine years, Davidson eight years and Leslie Muffett six years in prison.
NCA senior investigating officer Paul Green said:
“These men were involved in a serious conspiracy to import a large quantity of dangerous drugs. We know they had links into other organised crime gangs in Europe and it is almost certain that this wasn’t the first time they had done it.”
Of the search for Wakeling, Paul Green added:
“We strongly suspect that Wakeling fled abroad, possibly to Thailand were he has strong family links.
“But it is likely there are people here in the UK who hold clues about his movements after he arrived in Belfast on 6 January, and I’d appeal for anyone with information to come forward.
“He has a prosthetic leg and needs regular medical treatment.
“The NCA has an international reach and he should know distance isn’t a barrier to us finding him. We are determined he will be returned to the UK to serve his sentence.
“Until we find him, he’ll spend every day looking over his shoulder.”