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Britons jailed over yacht drugs bid

Published 24/04/2015

Members of the navy stand behind cocaine taken from the yacht Makayabella
Members of the navy stand behind cocaine taken from the yacht Makayabella

Three British men, including a pensioner, have been sentenced to up to ten years in prison in Ireland for their roles in a calamitous £200 million transatlantic cocaine smuggling plot which descended into starvation, drought and drug abuse.

John Powell, 70, of Silsden, West Yorkshire, was handed ten years in jail for skippering the 62-foot yacht Makayabella, which was intercepted off the Irish coast last September laden down with 41 bales of the narcotics onboard.

Benjamin Mellor, 35, of Bradford, West Yorkshire, and Thomas Britteon, 28, of Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire, were both sentenced to eight years each for their roles as "hired help" in the venture.

The trio pleaded guilty to two charges each of drug trafficking and importation.

Their sentencing hearing in Cork Circuit Court depicted an error-strewn voyage from Venezuela towards the UK, which attracted the attention of the US, France, UK and Ireland.

Mellor, a drug addict and alcoholic, broke his wrist en route and had ripped open one of the bales of cocaine to get high on his own supply to fend off hunger six days after the crew ran out of food.

Drinking water was also running out when the yacht was stormed by the Irish Navy in the Atlantic 200 miles (322km) off the south-west coast of Ireland, in the middle of the night on September 22.

Inspector Fergal Foley, a Garda investigator, said the vessel was in a grim state.

"To be quite blunt, they were delighted to see the Navy," he said.

The whole plot started to unravel four days before when another vessel, known as the Sea Breeze, had to be rescued from the Irish Sea after it ran out of fuel 18 miles off Rosslare, Co Wexford.

After being towed ashore, Irish authorities became suspicious at the large amount of food, drums of diesel, cannabis and satellite phones they found onboard.

Around the same time, a US merchant ship reported the Makayabella foundering in the Atlantic.

France scrambled a maritime aircraft to the scene and found the unregistered yacht languishing in the same position two days after it was first spotted.

By this time, Irish and UK authorities suspected the Sea Breeze was attempting to rendezvous with the Makayabella, which was later confirmed by charts and satellite phone evidence.

The Irish Navy sent two of its ships, the LE Niamh and the LE Roisin, to the scene and a six-man team stormed the yacht under darkness.

All three admitted immediately there was cocaine on board and were taken back to Ireland, where they were arrested as soon as they reached shore on September 25.

Cork Circuit Court was told Powell's son Stephen Powell, 48, from Guiseley, West Yorkshire, was a "major player" in the UK drugs underworld and the "main man by a step and a half" behind the operation.

He has already been sentenced to 16 years for conspiracy to import cocaine.

His father, who also has a daughter who is a university lecturer, was to get £100,000 for his role.

He flew out to the Caribbean on March 6 2013 to inspect the Makayabella, which his son had bought for the purpose of the smuggling venture.

He sailed it around the Caribbean for a year to provide a cover as a charter boat.

Powell was joined for most of the year by Mellor, who was also to be paid £100,000 for the trip, and they eventually picked up the 1,025 kilo cocaine consignment on August 4 in Venezuela.

Forensic tests have shown the cocaine to be about ten times the purity of that sold on the street, and had a "conservative" street value of around 290 million euro (£200 million).

Powell, who took up sailing after his wife died six years ago, was described as a jack of all trades who had been involved in a number of food businesses, mostly takeaways.

Mellor, a single man who had worked as a plasterer and window cleaner, has a history of alcohol and drug abuse, with a string of drug convictions.

Britteon, father of a four-year-old daughter, was known to police in the UK and had a drug problem. The court was told he "set sail" on the venture just after his mother died and was to be paid £20,000.

Both Mellor and Britteon were described as "simply hired help" but Powell fell into a different category as he had flown out to inspect the yacht and knew through his son about the whole plan.

Suffering from a number of medical conditions, his lawyers claimed the ten year sentence would effectively be a life sentence for him.

Judge Sean O Donnabhain said it was very significant crime that they all had knowingly involved themselves in.

But he said Powell was more involved and had more knowledge than the others.

For this reason, he could not reduce his ten year sentence, he said.

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