This article first appeared in the UK’s Daily Express on Wednesday October 19, 2016. I liked it not just because it helps to promote my book, but also because it is the first article in 40 years that focuses on the huge cocaine plot that I infiltrated together with my undercover partner.
‘Who wouldn’t have feared for their life?’ Meet the cop behind biggest 70s UK drug-bust
STEVE BENTLEY felt the pressure against the side of his temple and knew he was in trouble.
By NICK RIPPINGTON
PUBLISHED: 14:55, Tue, Oct 18, 2016 | UPDATED: 15:01, Tue, Oct 18, 2016
Above: Author Steve Bentley, as he is now, and a LSD factory that was raided in Hampton Wick, London
The Mafia-connected gangster lent down and asked him: “Are you cops?”
The Canadian gangster was in Britain to expand his cocaine network.
He had links to Bolivian drug cartels, using five couriers to transport 100 percent pure cocaine into the United States. Now he wanted to expand into Europe.
Though he was only holding his fingers to the side of Bentley’s head, there was no doubt his meaning was deadly serious. He had a real gun in a suitcase back at their hotel.
“It has to rank as the scariest moment of my life”
“His fingers were actually touching the skin of my forehead,” says Bentley, now 69 and living in the Philippines.
“He was serious. It has to rank as the scariest moment of my life. It was clear he was connected to South American drug cartels and a ‘wise guy’ – Mafia connected. Who wouldn’t have feared for their life? I did!
“In answer to his question I said, ‘Yes, of course we are cops and you’re the f***ing Pope’!”
Above: Former police detective and author Steve Bentley BENTLEY
Former police detective and author Steve Bentley’s alias was Steve Jackson.
Fortunately he accepted the response but the gangster, who Bentley knew simply as Bill, didn’t realise how close he was to the truth.
For the men he had been introduced to as Steve Jackson and Eric Walker were in fact Liverpool-born detective Bentley and Bristol-based Eric Wright, undercover officers working on the biggest British drug sting of the 1970s.
Now for the first time Bentley has recounted the tales of his undercover days in his book: Undercover – Operation Julie: The Inside Story.
The operation, which began when traces of LSD production were found in a West Wales farmhouse, ended when more than one million LSD tablets were seized from various locations throughout Britain along with enough crystal to make 6.5m more.
Bristol Crown Court handed out jail terms adding up to more than 120 years to 15 defendants involved in the production and distribution of the hallucinatory drug.
The operation, named after Sgt Julie Taylor – one of the police officers involved in the sting – was later immortalised in The Clash song Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad.
And in all more than 800 officers from 11 forces were involved in the sting, though Bentley was one of just three officers who operated deep undercover.
Steve as a 29-year-old cop at time of Operation Julie
Having been given new identities – with criminal records to match – for six months he and Wright lived a hippy lifestyle, washing, eating and sleeping out of a decrepit old Ford Transit Van painted with garish psychedelic flowers.
Developing a cover story that they were looking for Eric’s brother, who had absconded from police custody after a drugs bust, they set up ‘camp’ outside the Mid Wales village of Llanddewi Brefi, better known these days as home of Little Britain’s Only Gay in the Village, in order to befriend suspected drug dealer Alston Hughes – known as Smiles – and his mates.
For the most part the job involved drinking with them, taking drugs and generally becoming part of the scene.
“The people we were with used drugs every day and if we hadn’t followed suit in their presence it would have been tantamount to saying ‘I can’t do that, I’m a police officer’,” says Bentley.
“I wasn’t comfortable with it, though. Smoking a spliff was no big deal, you just get a bit silly, but when you get to sharing a pipe full of high strength cannabis it’s a different story.
“On one occasion I was hallucinating and went to the toilet to be sick. Suddenly I saw a dragon coming out of the toilet and the bowl was on fire.
“It was worrying not only because of the effect it was having on me but I was wondering how I could stay in control and not reveal who I was.”
Steve in the back of the van he lived out of
But it was when Mafia man “Bill” turned up in the village during the summer of 1976 that things suddenly became serious.
He persuaded them to accompany him on a road trip to Liverpool and it was during a late night drinking session in a nightclub that the operation suddenly became deadly serious.
“He had cold grey eyes like a dead fish,” says Bentley. “There was no glint, no soul, no expression in them. Just dead. On occasion Bill would turn his gaze on to either Eric or myself.
“The only word to describe his stare was sinister. I was thinking ‘this guy is a serious player’.”
When he put his fingers to Bentley’s head he knew he had to remain calm. “It was the one time I was least likely to crack. My life depended on it.
“What followed was a simulated assassination. I went cold when I saw him mouth the silenced spiting sound. Twice, as two imaginary shells splattered my brains out. Pop! Pop!”
Bentley, who was 29 at the time the operation began, admits that the one time he nearly gave the game away was when he was smoking dope and meditating with new friend Smiles.
Undercover – Operation Julie: The Inside Story
“I got really close to him,” he says.
“I thought he was a ‘prince among men’. Just because I knew he was a drug dealer didn’t make him a ‘bad man’ in my book.
I think I gelled with him because of his quick wit and line in repartee. We were foils for each other and fell about laughing at each other’s craziness.
“It was the one occasion I nearly gave the game away. We were sat cross-legged on the floor of his house, having a smoke in front of his shrine to the Hindu god Shiva. We started meditating and it was really peaceful.
“At that moment I came very close to telling him who I was because I liked the guy immensely.
The only thing that stopped me was the thought of the devastating effect it would have on the whole operation.”
When Smiles was eventually arrested, Bentley visited him at Swindon Police Station.
“I was almost in tears,” he admits. “His reaction was ‘no hard feelings, man – it’s all part of the game’.”
• Nick Rippington is the author of Crossing The Whitewash, a UK gangland thriller available from Amazon.co.uk in paperback, audiobook and for Kindle
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