TWO brothers imported £3million-worth of heroin on a coach trip packed with unsuspecting tourists.
Gary and Glen Wheatley, who operated G&G Travel in Hetton, hid 12 kilos of high-grade heroin in a secret chamber they had built into one of their coaches.
The drugs were then found by customs officers at Dover in December 2011 when Gary, 51, was driving the bus full of passengers back from their trip to a Christmas market in Belgium.
He was arrested at the British port, while his brother went on the run to Holland – where he was accused of attempted murder – before being extradited to the UK on a European arrest warrant last year.
David Norris, National Crime Agency Branch Commander, said: “The Wheatley brothers thought they could use their coach company as a front to smuggle heroin into the UK but they were wrong.
“We will continue to work with partners here and overseas to protect our borders and target drug traffickers.”
An innocent pensioner, who had organised the trip through the firm, ended up being arrested and put in custody before it was realised he was not involved in the drugs importation.
At Newcastle Crown Court yesterday Glen, 45, of Bowes Lyon’s Avenue, Easington Lane, was jailed for 12 and a half years. Gary, of Station Avenue, Fence Houses, was jailed for six years.
Both brothers had admitted conspiracy to contravene prohibition on the importation of class A drugs.
Mr Recorder William Lowe QC told them: “This was a sophisticated operation. It involved adapting the coach which was sent on this trip.
“The adaption involved boxing off part of the bulkhead, a special wall fitting, screws and it was carpeted over so any search would not reveal the compartment.
“There was nearly 12 kilos of heroin loaded into that.
“In doing that, you both played for high stakes.
“This was a sophisticated conspiracy. It involved high purity drugs.”
The court heard the coach had been booked by a retired driver who had organised a trip to Ostend for a group of market-goers.
Gary drove the double-decker coach and passengers to Europe where he met up with his brother, who had travelled there separately, taking a different route, in his Mercedes car.
While the coach party enjoyed their overnight stay on the continent, the Wheatley brothers packed the illegal haul into the hidden compartment.
Gary then picked up the passengers and took them back to the UK.
Prosecutor Andrew Dallas told the court: “He picked up the passengers in the early morning and set off back to Dover.
“They caught the 11am ferry. At the other end, it all went wrong for them.
“The coach was stopped by the border agency and thoroughly searched.
“Eventually officers found what The Crown say was a very sophisticated and elaborate hiding place underneath the seating area of the coach.”
The drugs haul was found in a boxed off part of the bulkhead, surrounding the wheel arch, which had been erected using specially-fabricated metal, held in place by screws and covered in carpet to match what was already in the coach.
Mr Dallas added: “It could have sold on the streets in individual deals for between £2m and £3m.”
The court was told that when Glen, who has previous convictions involving drugs, heard his brother had been caught, he went on the run to Holland, where he was later arrested leaving the scene of an alleged robbery, driving the wrong way up a busy motorway.
He was charged with attempted murder and eventually convicted of motoring charges and spent time in a Dutch jail awaiting the outcome of an appeal of that conviction.
He was then extradited back to the UK and admitted the drugs charge, claiming he had been promised a £15,000 payment to import the heroin on behalf of a third party.
Paul Currer, defending, said the Wheatleys’ coach firm had been hit hard by the recession, resulting in secured loans and debt.
Mr Currer said: “For that reason, he accepted the offer to take part in this enterprise. It was a role he was chosen to play because of the fact he had a coach company.”
Both men denied knowing what type or amount of drugs would be involved.
The court heard Gary was persuaded to take part in the scam by his brother and has never been in trouble before.
Bob Spragg, defending, said: “He was horrified by the amount of drugs that were put in and by the type of that drug.”