Sxm Sint Maarten

How British couple’s greed led them to swap luxury life for a Lisbon prison

British OAPs cruising their way to jail: How retired chef and his secretary wife will swap golf courses and yoga classes on the Algarve for a Lisbon prison after pure greed led them to smuggle £1m of cocaine across the Atlantic

  • Roger Clarke and wife Sue, aged 72 and 71, arrested last year in Lisbon, Portugal
  • The pair, from Kent, were arrested after 9lbs of cocaine found in their suitcases
  • Former chef Roger insisted he had no idea the cocaine was hidden in the lining
  • Elderly couple convicted of drug trafficking, sentenced to eight years in prison

Shortly before dawn on December 4 last year, four plain-clothes Portuguese policemen boarded the cruise ship Marco Polo as it docked at Lisbon at the end of a month-long trip to the Caribbean.

The officers headed straight for cabin 469, waking its occupants, pensioners Roger and Sue Clarke.

On the bedside table, officers found a gold-covered 2018 diary belonging to Mrs Clarke, a bespectacled 71-year-old former secretary, its days marked with the handwritten minutiae of the couple’s life.

There was an entry for her husband, who suffers from a heart condition, to attend a doctor’s appointment and another noting a forthcoming facial and manicure for her. Other days were marked with details of trips to bingo and meals out. ‘Indian with Karen and Paul, April, Sean and Sean’s boys,’ read one such entry, alongside a scrawled shopping list of Clarke and Sue Clarke, a British pensioner couple convicted of smuggling drugs aboard a cruise ship, arriving at the court in Lisbon ‘shampoo, conditioner, washing powder, deodorant, tea bags’.

So far, so mundane.

But it was under the bed that police found what they were really looking for – four new suitcases, two blue and two brown.

Officers cut into the lining of one, revealing a white powder concealed within. It was cocaine.

In total, 9kg (20lbs) of the drug with a street value of £1 million was hidden inside the luggage.

From the start, the Clarkes said they had no idea what it was or why it was there. They were just ordinary pensioners who had settled in Spain to enjoy an ex-pat retirement in the sun. They had paid for the £6,800 cruise with savings accrued through ‘hard work’.

But their story did not hold water for long.

A further search of the diary revealed details of another cruise they had taken to Brazil earlier that year and the dates of a third 16-day voyage booked for the coming March. The entry read: ‘Fly to Havana, Cuba. Cruise to Philipsburg, St Maarten; St John, Antigua and Barbados; Funchal, Madeira; Malaga, Alicante. Approx £4,000.’

And that was just the 2018 diary. Investigations by police would show that in the two years before their arrest, the couple had been on a series of cruises worth £18,000.

Given that they were living on a joint monthly income, after rent, of just £885, how could they possibly fund such a lifestyle?

The Portuguese police had another ace up their sleeve. The tip-off about the Clarkes had come from British police – who knew about a dark secret in their past.

‘Roger Clarke and Susan Clarke have a criminal history of drug trafficking offences and were imprisoned in Norway… for the importation of 240kg of cannabis,’ the communique read.

Arrested by Portuguese police, the couple have spent the past nine months in prison waiting for their day in court. When it finally arrived last week, their explanations were hardly convincing.

Mr Clarke claimed he had an agreement with a mysterious Jamaican entrepreneur to help ship pineapples to the UK, earning £2,000 per container of fruit he organised while on stopovers on his cruises. As a ‘sideline’, he said he had been asked to take new suitcases back to the UK for which he would be paid £200 a time.

Portuguese police had a very different theory – namely that the couple were being paid between £18,000 and £26,500, plus expenses, per trip to smuggle drugs.

Three judges in Lisbon agreed, and yesterday sentenced the Clarkes to eight years in prison.

Mr Clarke, who held hands with his wife as they learnt their fate through a translator, whispered to her: ‘Jesus Christ, I wasn’t expecting more than four years. I’ll be 80 when all this is over.’

Back on Spain’s Costa Blanca – where the couple settled three years ago – there is little sympathy for the Clarkes.

Home before their detention was a rented whitewashed villa with a roof terrace and turret in the resort of Guardamar del Segura, south of Alicante. Mrs Clarke attended yoga and spinning classes and her husband was a member of a golf society at a British-run bistro bar.

But while softly spoken Mrs Clarke was well liked, her 72-year-old husband’s abrupt manner had quickly ruffled feathers. ‘He ordered drinks without saying ‘hello’, even when the staff tried to get him to be more polite by teaching him how to say it in Spanish,’ a local recalled. Another described him as ‘a complete know-it-all’ and a ‘very loud Londoner’.

Known for his tendency to exaggerate his past, he quickly earned the nickname ‘Mr Bull*****er’.

‘If you’d done something you could bet your bottom dollar Roger had done it – but he’d done it bigger and better,’ said plumber Paul Craven, 64, a former friend who was nearly ensnared by the couple’s lies.

Over a brandy, Mr Clarke would boast of having been a boxer, doctor, pilot, paramedic and prison officer. He even said he’d served in the SAS during a six-year military career. Most often, though, he’d claim to have been a chef, working in a Michelin-starred restaurant and owning two eateries in Benidorm.

Most took what he said with a giant pinch of salt. As Mr Craven’s wife Pauline, 61, the Clarkes’ former cleaner, said: ‘I knew it was rubbish when he invited us over for chilli and started to boil the mince in a pan of water.’

Portuguese police acting on a tip-off from Britain’s NCA discovered 9lbs of cocaine hidden inside the lining of four suitcases Clarke had taken from the island of St Lucia

In reality, Mr Clarke, who was born in Dartford, had spent much of his life working as an HGV driver.

But his biggest secret wasn’t his job – it was his identity. Mr Clarke was born Roger Button in Dartford, Kent, and was using that name when he met Sue more than 20 years ago. She, meanwhile, had three children from her first marriage to an actor. The couple had been together for about 25 years when they split up.

She stayed in the marital home in Cheadle, Cheshire, to look after the children, who were then in their late teens. But then she met Mr Clarke and simply ‘abandoned’ them, it is claimed.

‘She just left the children with her husband and walked out on them,’ a former colleague said.

‘She had to make a choice and she chose to start a new life with Roger and that did not include the children. The children were in their teens and you can imagine they were very upset.’

At around the turn of the century, the couple relocated to the Costa Blanca. At the time they lived in an apartment block just outside Torrevieja, near Alicante, where they ran a bar-restaurant. But by 2002, it was in serious financial trouble.

Struggling to pay his suppliers, Mr Clarke claims he was approached by a customer who said that if he was willing to smuggle cannabis to Norway, he could clear his debts.

Giving evidence to the Portuguese court, Mr Clarke said he agreed to the trip but that on his return the smuggling gang got ‘heavy’ with him, insisting that he go again. He added: ‘When I said ‘no’ they beat me up badly and said they would do the same to my wife if I didn’t do another trip.

‘They insisted I take my wife because it looked better than a single man on his own. We were caught in Norway and put in prison for two months before being released. We stayed in Oslo but we were threatened and followed. We went to the police and asked for help but they said they couldn’t help us.’

Court documents reveal that between 2003 and 2004, the couple took part in 16 drug-smuggling trips to Norway over 15 months in Mr Clarke’s battered old Nissan.

In total, £1million of drugs was imported – hidden in secret compartments within the body of the vehicle. For their role they were paid a total of £33,000. Eleven of the trips were made from Spain, the other five from the Netherlands.

Sue and Roger Clarke’s Villa in Guardamar, Spain, where they were the life and soul of local bars and members of a golf club before their arrest and conviction for drug trafficking

Mr Clarke usually collected the drugs from ‘a supermarket near Alicante’. The couple then headed for the German port of Kiel before making the 20-hour crossing to Oslo by ferry.

They were caught in Oslo on September 13, 2004, but skipped bail and returned to England in January 2005. It was then that they changed their names to Clarke ‘to avoid revenge from criminal associates’.

Their life on the run ended when Mr Clarke became chairman of a residents’ association and his picture appeared in a local newspaper. It led to the couple’s arrest and extradition to Norway, where they were jailed in 2011 – Mr Clarke for almost five years and his wife for three years and nine months.

After the couple’s release from prison in Norway, they told friends they had been convicted of tobacco smuggling.

Settling in Spain in 2016, their love of luxury cruises quickly raised eyebrows.

But Mr Clarke explained away their expensive tastes by saying they were funded by ‘the pineapple run’. He said acquaintances – a Jamaican businessman called Lee and another man nicknamed Dee – had asked him to negotiate to buy exotic fruit for shipment back to the UK while in the Caribbean.

His work as a chef made him suited to the role, he added.

Clarke, from Bromley, Kent, claimed after his arrest a mysterious UK-based Jamaican businessman called Lee had asked him to negotiate the exotic fruit sales during cruise ship stopovers in the Caribbean and bring back the suitcases ‘as a sideline’ [File photo]

He revealed he was also occasionally asked to bring back suitcases. These were supposedly high-end samples, the aim being to sell them for up to £1,500 per case at ‘places like Harrods’. He would be paid £200 per case.

He couldn’t explain in court why his paymasters didn’t simply put the cases in the shipping containers along with the fruit.

It was a story the Cravens were familiar with. In May 2016, the Clarkes invited them to join them on an all-expenses-paid £3,000-a-head cruise to the Caribbean.

‘Roger told me about his business importing pineapples and wanted me on the ship to keep his wife company,’ Mrs Craven said. ‘They offered to pay for everything.’

But the three-week trip came with a catch. The Cravens would have to transfer their clothes into new suitcases that Mr Clarke was picking up in St Lucia. ‘He said the people with the pineapples paid for the cruises as well,’ Mr Craven said.

‘They’d be paying for ours. He said, ‘all I want you to do is bring back some suitcases with you’.’

But as soon as the suitcases were mentioned, the Cravens became suspicious. They declined the offer – and were immediately cut off by the Clarkes. Mrs Craven even lost her £80-a-month cleaning job.

Police have little doubt that the trips were a cover for drug-smuggling. They believe the couple had contact with drugs trafficking gangs during two trips in 2017 and another they made in 2018.

Fast-forward to November 2018 and the Clarkes set sail once more. They left from Kent, possibly arousing suspicion because when they had flown in from Spain they had spoken only of visiting family in Kent at passport control – and ‘made no mention of travelling to the Caribbean’.

During the trip, Mr Clarke went ashore at the island of St Lucia and returned with four new cases. He gave away the cases they started their cruise with – one to a cabin steward and two to the man in St Lucia who handed him the new cases.

As the ship headed back to Europe, Britain’s National Crime Agency contacted Portugal’s police drug trafficking unit. Where the specific details they passed on came from is unknown. ‘Roger and Susan Clarke are believed to have collected suitcases containing 10kg of cocaine when the Marco Polo stopped at St Lucia on 21/11/2018,’ the tip-off read.

Warning that it was ‘highly likely’ they would try to offload the drugs once the ship docked in Portugal, the message ended: ‘Please keep me informed on the action you propose to take.’

The rest, as they say, is history.

In court, Mr Clarke broke down in tears as he said that as a result of their arrest he and his wife had ‘lost all their possessions’.

Given this is their second offence, the performance cut little ice with the court – or their former friends. As Mrs Craven said last night: ‘That could easily have been us in that courtroom instead of them and we’d have lost everything.

‘I’ll never forgive them for what they did to us.

‘I don’t have an ounce of sympathy for them. They’re just plain greedy. They wanted to live the high life with money they hadn’t earned through hard work and they were willing to sacrifice friends like us. Roger talked in court about being tricked by people he trusted when that’s exactly what they did to us. Whatever happens to them from now on in is entirely their fault.’

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