Cousins Hamilton and McKinlay killed in Irish Sea speedboat accident were smuggling pups
Pair used a speedboat to avoid animal investigators
Two men killed in a speedboat accident in the Irish Sea were part of a notorious puppy smuggling ring that uses Northern Ireland ports to traffic animals to Scotland.
Sandy Hamilton (35) and his cousin, Kevin McKinlay (46), were part of a group that brought thousands of designer puppies from the Republic through Northern Ireland to sell across the UK.
They died on Sunday after setting out from Port Logan in Scotland on Saturday.
One of them was pulled from the water by Donaghadee RNLI.
The BBC reported that a substantial amount of cash was found on Hamilton's body.
It is understood the pair were using the speedboat to evade animal cruelty investigators and police as they went to the Irish Republic to pick up more dogs.
Hamilton, who was due to stand trial accused of killing two pensioners in a car crash, is known to have made regular trips to the Republic to source designer breeds that could come with a price tag of £1,000 each. He would pay as little as €50 for the pups, which would be taken from cramped breeding farms.
The men were under surveillance as part of Operation Delphin, which aims to disrupt the illegal trafficking of pups into Northern Ireland and onwards to the UK market. The USPCA played a key role in the operation and helped intercept six smuggling attempts this year.
A spokesman for the organisations said that puppy smuggling was a multimillion-pound trade that involved vulnerable dogs being crammed into crates and subjected to incarceration in car boots.
Pups are generally bred at farms in the Republic before they are smuggled through Northern Ireland ports without the necessary veterinary paperwork that confirms their age and health condition.
The mixed litters are then subjected to long journeys by sea and road.
"This is an ideal environment for the spread of fatal diseases such as parvo," the USPCA spokesman said.
"The ongoing success of Operation Delphin is attributed to cooperation between the Ulster, Dublin, Irish and Scottish societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
"Our sharing of intelligence has impacted on this evil trade, and the USPCA has been key to six successful interceptions.
"These have led to the rescue of over 100 puppies and dogs, all of whom were admitted to the USPCA Veterinary Hospital in Newry for recuperation and health checks before being returned to their country of origin.
"Detecting and observing the movement of the couriers comes at a high financial cost, and the charity receives no government funding to offset this outlay."
Investigators previously stopped Hamilton travelling by ferry to Cairnryan in 2015, driving a Range Rover that contained dozens of pups. He was not charged, however, as it could not be proven that he had taken the animals from the Republic.