Two Irish brothers are believed to have escaped a jail in Venezuela where they were sentenced to 11 years for cocaine smuggling.
Leigh (25) and Dermot O'Neill (21) are back home in Athlone after reportedly walking out of the notorious San Juan prison where they were incarcerated last year.
Leigh had pleaded guilty to the offences, while his younger brother Dermot protested his innocence.
Belfast girl Michaella McCollum Connolly (20) awaits to hear her fate in a Peruvian prison with Scottish native Melissa Reid (19), news has emerged that the O'Neill brothers escaped their prison and have spent the past few weeks making their way from South America back to their hometown of Athlone.
Locals in Athlone told the Herald that the brothers have been seen with their sister in recent days.
"We never heard they were home so it was a bit of a surprise really," said one resident.
"It's been on the radio here this morning and everything. It'll be the talk of the town in no time," she added.
"We don't know if they got out themselves or were let out to be honest, but they're home anyway, that's for sure.”
In March last year the two brothers had been travelling with fellow Irishman Martin ‘Butch’ Beirne in Venezuela when Beirne, who had addresses in Sligo and Roscommon, died in a Caracas hotel after a cocaine filled condom burst in his stomach. Police later arrested the O'Neill brothers at the offices of the Irish consulate in nearby Avenida de Mexico.
After police examined Leigh O’Neill they discovered he had “foreign objects” in his body. He later passed 92 balloons filled with 725 grams of cocaine worth €50,000 in them. But an X-ray of younger brother Dermot showed he had not swallowed any drugs.
"It's great they are back," an uncle named Tommy was quoted in The Irish Sun as saying today.
"We're over the moon the boys are out. It was a hellhole jail they were in. Dermot did nothing, absolutely nothing," he added. Another uncle, Frankie, said Dermot was convicted on "guilt by association" and had done nothing wrong. An Irish priest in Caracas who had been visiting the two men said he got a call from them after they fled he jail.
"They usually rang me looking for money, but this time they told me they escaped.
"I was surprised to say the least," said Fr John Jennings.
The brothers had apparently stayed with a Venezuelan man who had also escaped.
During their trial, Leigh told the court Dermot had “no knowledge” that he and Beirne were working as drug mules in South America.
He claimed that deceased Beirne had “proposed the business” to smuggle cocaine.
A receptionist at the hotel gave evidence that both brothers had sought assistance for Beirne at 4am on the night in question and had fled the scene after he collapsed coughing blood. Forensic officers told the court they found a digital weighing scales and traces of cocaine in the hotel room where the three men were staying.
When removed to hospital on the night, an X-ray of Leigh showed a large number of swallowed foreign objects, and he eventually passed 92 balloons of cocaine.
State prosecutors later ruled that Dermot was indirectly linked to the crime and the two men should receive “the highest penalty”.