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Fake Dutch ambulances smuggled up to £1.6bn of cocaine and heroin into UK

Published 27/11/2015

Drugs inside a fake ambulance used to smuggle cocaine, heroin and ecstasy into the UK
Drugs inside a fake ambulance used to smuggle cocaine, heroin and ecstasy into the UK

A fleet of specially adapted fake Dutch ambulances smuggled up to £1.6 billion of top-quality cocaine and heroin concealed in secret hides into the UK in just 14 months.

Three men face lengthy jail terms after a trial at Birmingham Crown Court for their part in a "lucrative conspiracy" to sneak class A drugs into the country using Channel ferry crossings from Essex to East Yorkshire.

Drugs inside a fake ambulance
Drugs inside a fake ambulance
Drugs inside a fake ambulance
Drugs inside a fake ambulance

During the trial, the court heard how the group were equipped with bogus paramedics' uniforms and even a fake patient on crutches whose ailments had disappeared as soon as the unidentified accomplice arrived in the UK.

Today, 55-year-old Leonardus Bijlsma, who claimed he was just an illiterate handyman but was in fact the smuggling operation's "right-hand man", was convicted by a jury of smuggling.

The tattooed burly father-of-four's DNA was found on a rivet gun and gloves hidden in one of the hides in the back of the ambulance, despite his claiming he was too "dirty" to go into the patient's compartment.

Bijlsma, of Hoofddorp, Amsterdam, had denied the offences during a two-week trial.

Another man, co-conspirator Richard Engelsbel, aged 51, had already admitted driving an ambulance on 25 trips during the operation.

But it was Olof Schoon, whom the Crown said was the "central player", who crafted the audacious "veneer" of respectability for the smuggling ring complete with a fully taxed and insured fleet of adapted ambulances run out of registered company offices back in Holland.

The 38-year-old's fingerprints were found on the reverse of one of the riveted metal plates concealing the drugs.

Fake invoices, riddled with spelling mistakes, and paperwork for false patient transfers to The Royal London Hospital were generated by Schoon's company, but the hospital had no records of any such arrangements.

Drugs inside a fake ambulance
Drugs inside a fake ambulance
Drugs inside a fake ambulance

The telephone numbers and addresses for the patients invoiced were also dupes.

He had also admitted his role in the conspiracy before Bijlsma's trial, and is said by the Crown to have made 39 trips.

The ambulances ran for 14 months, from April last year, until four men's arrest in an intelligence-led National Crime Agency (NCA) sting near a scrapyard in Smethwick in the West Midlands in June.

Bijlsma, who took part in 16 trips, would often fly into the UK via Stanstead or Heathrow airport where Schoon would hire a car and the men would drive to rendezvous with the ambulance and its crew.

He claimed to have been asked along on the trips by his "boss" Schoon, because the younger man feared he would fall asleep at the wheel because he suffered with sleep-apnoea

Bijlsma also alleged he would use the trips to scout out scrap cars to buy, but admitted in court to never having actually brought any back from the UK.

Undated handout photo issued by the National Crime Agency (NCA) of a fleet of fake ambulances, as Leonardus Bijlsmar, 55, has been found guilty of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK using a fake ambulance in connection with an audacious £1.6 billion operation
Undated handout photo issued by the National Crime Agency (NCA) of a fleet of fake ambulances, as Leonardus Bijlsmar, 55, has been found guilty of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK using a fake ambulance in connection with an audacious £1.6 billion operation
Undated handout photo issued by the National Crime Agency (NCA) of the interior of a fake ambulance used to smuggle more than £38 million worth of cocaine, heroin and ecstasy into the UK as Leonardus Bijlsmar, 55, has been found guilty of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK using a fake ambulance in connection with an audacious £1.6 billion operation which saw huge amounts of contraband brought across the Channel under the noses of British police. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday November 27, 2015. Two other men from Holland; Olof Schoon, said to be the conspiracy's central player, and Richard Engelsbel had already admitted the conspiracy charge and will be sentenced alongside their compatriot next week. A fourth man, 28-year-old Dennis Vogelaar, of Vijfhuizen, Amsterdam, was acquitted by the jury of smuggling class A contraband. See PA story COURTS Ambulance. Photo credit should read: NCA/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Undated handout photo issued by the National Crime Agency (NCA) of a fake ambulance used to smuggle more than £38 million worth of cocaine, heroin and ecstasy into the UK as Leonardus Bijlsmar, 55, has been found guilty of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK using a fake ambulance in connection with an audacious £1.6 billion operation which saw huge amounts of contraband brought across the Channel under the noses of British police. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday November 27, 2015. Two other men from Holland; Olof Schoon, said to be the conspiracy's central player, and Richard Engelsbel had already admitted the conspiracy charge and will be sentenced alongside their compatriot next week. A fourth man, 28-year-old Dennis Vogelaar, of Vijfhuizen, Amsterdam, was acquitted by the jury of smuggling class A contraband. See PA story COURTS Ambulance. Photo credit should read: NCA/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.

The drugs would arrive separately on a ferry from the Hook of Holland, usually docking at Harwich, in an ambulance with two bogus paramedics on board and on at least one occasion with a fake patient.

Often the rendezvous between Schoon, Bijlsma and the ambulance crew would be at a hotel, and the jury were shown CCTV footage from the Holiday Inn in Colchester.

In a meeting there on June 8 and 9, a fake male patient was seen walking into the lobby on crutches but later walked out unaided with his crutches carried by one of the bogus paramedics.

Olof Schoon who has pleaded guilty at Birmingham Crown Court, of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK using a fake ambulance
Olof Schoon who has pleaded guilty at Birmingham Crown Court, of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK using a fake ambulance

On other occasions, the meetings would be at Moorside Business Park, near Colchester, where the prosecution said the drugs would be unloaded.

Mr Davies had told jurors: "This was a top-level, audacious, and - up to the point of interception and the arrests - successful and lucrative criminal conspiracy."

When the ambulance was seized in Smethwick, two premises were raided in Holland where four other ambulances also fitted with concealed hides were found.

Leonardus Bijlsma who has been found guilty at Birmingham Crown Court, of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK using a fake ambulance
Leonardus Bijlsma who has been found guilty at Birmingham Crown Court, of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK using a fake ambulance

Further analysis revealed 45 trips to the UK by what prosecutors called the "fleet" of adapted ambulances, to locations in Essex, London, Manchester, Merseyside, West Yorkshire and the Midlands.

There were another four other journeys traced through automatic number-plate recognition hits and receipt traces, but these were in unmodified vehicles.

It is estimated that the operation may have seen up to £420 million in high-purity drugs smuggled into the UK, with an estimated street value worth four times that amount.

Richard Engelsbel who has pleaded guilty at Birmingham Crown Court, of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK
Richard Engelsbel who has pleaded guilty at Birmingham Crown Court, of conspiring to smuggle drugs into the UK

Rob Lewin, head of the NCA's specialist operations unit, said: "This was a highly specialist drug transportation service.

"By shutting it down the NCA and its partners have disrupted criminal activity across the UK.

"There will be some very frustrated high-level criminals out there who, given the size of their orders, will have lost a lot of money.

"The human cost of class A drug addiction is huge but these men, who made trip after trip, were motivated only by profit. We will now start to focus on stripping them of any assets."

"I would like thank colleagues from the Crown Prosecution Service and the Dutch National Police for their support in bringing these men to justice."

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