A drug-trafficking gang, led by a convicted killer who masterminded the £25 million racket after fleeing prison, were jailed yesterday for a total of 37 years.
Keith Harrison, from Coventry, was serving a sevenanda-half year sentence for drugs offences and manslaughter when he fled North Sea Camp prison in Lincolnshire while on home leave.
Harrison, who had been starting a new programme of re-integration into the community when he escaped to Holland, set up a business in Amsterdam buying cannabis resin, ecstasy and amphetamine sulphate from a Dutch drugs baron.
He then recruited others into the racket which was smashed, following Operation Shearson, a ten-month joint effort between the Dutch police and the National Crime Squad which netted 33 arrests and intercepted £25 million of drugs.
The operation saw a wedding-day arrest in Gretna Green, the arrest of a conman convicted of ostrich-egg fraud and a high-speed boat trip by gang members across the English Channel.
Jailing Harrison for eight years, after singling him out as the "chief" among the conspirators, Judge Richard Griffith-Jones told Birmingham Crown Court that international trafficking of controlled drugs was a major worldwide problem "at the base" of a considerable proportion of crime in English cities.
The court was told Harrison (50), who admitted conspiracy to supply drugs, absconded in September 2001 while serving time for drugs offences and killing a man who was kicked to death at a pub in Longford, Coventry.
He recruited Handley, a fellow inmate at North Sea Prison who had served time for armed robbery, to handle the UK arm of the operation, transporting drugs from the continent into the country, and then co-ordinating its distribution.
Donald James, from Kingshurst, Birmingham, arranged the collection and laundering of the money.
As well as Harrison, seven others including Handley (36) and Harrison's Nottinghamshire "gophers" were imprisoned yesterday. They had either admitted or were found guilty at earlier hearings of conspiracy to supply drugs.
Handley (32) from Hucknall, Nottingham, was jailed for five-and-a-half years.
Adrian Haywood (36), from Underwood, Nottingham, was jailed for six years; Dale Wright (30), of Skegby, Notts, three years, and Mark Ford (32), of Bulwell, Nottingham, received six years and six months.
Michael Saward (57), from Ramsgate, Kent, received six years imprisonment; Steven Bower (35), from Grantham, Lincolnshire, four years, and Allan Walker (62), from Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire, was jailed for 18 months.
The sentencing of James (56) was adjourned for medical reports. The court heard that Handley had benefited to the tune of £500,000 through his criminal activities and he was ordered to pay back £29,509, that amount being the value of his assets. Harrison's profits are still to be calculated.
Judge Griffith-Jones said traffic in controlled drugs was a major underworld problem.
"It is by value one of the most valuable trades worldwide," he said. "It is a business responsible for a considerable proportion of the crime in our cities."
He said large quantities of drugs attracted hardened criminals prepared to risk "serious violence" as they tried to protect valuable commodities.