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Dutch smuggling gang used fake ambulances 'rammed with drugs', court told

Published 17/11/2015

The fake ambulance was used to smuggle cocaine, heroin and ecstasy into the UK, Birmingham Crown Court was told
The fake ambulance was used to smuggle cocaine, heroin and ecstasy into the UK, Birmingham Crown Court was told

Audacious Dutch smugglers may have sneaked up to £1.6 billion worth of cocaine and heroin into the UK using "a fleet" of fake ambulances, a court has heard.

Leonardus Bijlsma and Dennis Vogelaar were allegedly part of a "lucrative criminal conspiracy" to sneak huge hauls of drugs into the country under the noses of British police, according to prosecutors.

A Birmingham Crown Court jury was today told the smuggling operation, fronted by a bogus ambulance company in Holland, may have seen up to £420 million in "top-quality" class A drugs reach the UK, via the Channel's ferry ports.

When the high-purity drug packets were cut down to individual street-value wraps, the total cash value could increase four-fold reaching a "staggering" amount, said prosecutor Robert Davies

He said: "The prosecution suggest this was a top-level, audacious, and - up to the point of interception and the arrests - a successful and lucrative criminal conspiracy."

Mr Davies said the conspiracy was uncovered when officers of the National Crime Agency (NCA) swooped on one of the ambulances after tracking it to Smethwick in the West Midlands, on June 16.

When police arrived they arrested Bijlsma, described in court by Mr Davies as the organised crime operation's "right-hand man", and "ambulance driver" Vogelaar.

The gang were equipped with bogus paramedic uniforms and a letter purporting to be from a Dutch patient being taken to a London hospital for treatment.

In separate smuggling runs, the Crown has also alleged the conspirators may have employed "fake patients" to strengthen their cover story.

When the NCA officers swooped in Smethwick, two other men; Olof Schoon, aged 38, and 51-year-old Richard Engelsbel, were also detained, jurors heard.

Mr Davies explained that the reason those men did not appear in the dock alongside Bijlsma and Vogelaar, both of Amsterdam, was because they have already admitted conspiracy to import class A drugs.

Schoon, who was director of Dutch-based Schoon Ambulance Company, was described by prosecutors as "the central player".

Investigations revealed that the ambulance was "rammed" to the roof with more than £38 million of cocaine and heroin.

Inside the back of the ambulance, concealed behind metal-riveted panels in six "hides", were neatly-stacked, colour-coded packets of class A drugs including 193kg of cocaine with a street value of more than £30 million, and 74kg of heroin worth £8 million in individual deals.

Officers also found 60,000 ecstasy tablets.

Mr Davies, opening the case for the Crown, described it as "an absolutely enormous amount of class A drugs".

He added: "In truth the ambulance was rammed with drugs."

But Mr Davies also told the jury that further study of bogus company's records revealed that the fake ambulance journeys had been "going on over weeks and months".

In Holland, investigators discovered "a fleet of ambulances" being run by Schoon's company, ostensibly transferring patients to and from the UK.

Mr Davies described the firm and its operations as nothing more than "a veneer" for the smuggling operation which boasted vehicles that were fully taxed, and regular accounts filed with the authorities.

"Four (ambulances) had hiding places of a similar type," he added.

"Between the vehicles, at least 45 trips can be shown to have been made in 14 months, with the final trip in June."

Both Bijlsma, 55, and of Hoofddorp, and 28-year-old Vogelaar, of Vijfhuizen, were later charged with conspiracy to smuggle. They deny any wrong-doing.

In interview they told officers they had no knowledge of drug-smuggling operation, with Bijlsma stating he had travelled abroad to look at a car.

Vogelaar claimed he believed his driving job to be genuine.

However, the prosecutor told jurors they would be studying "highly incriminating" evidence implicating both men, including a rivet gun found with Bijlsma's DNA on it which the prosecution have claimed was used to fasten the false panels inside the ambulance.

The prosecution likened Vogelaar, who was shown on CCTV played in court wearing a paramedic's uniform, to TV cartoon character "Mr Ben".

"The organised crime group running this operation would not have risked an innocent stooge aboard one of its ambulances," added Mr Davies.

The trial, expected to last two weeks, continues.

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