Freshwater Five: radar casts doubt on guilty verdict for £53m cocaine haul

Mark Townsend
·5-min read

It began like most other fishing trips for the crew of the Galwad. The sea was choppier than they’d have liked but the four men on board were hopeful of rich pickings in the spring tides off the Isle of Wight.

They had no idea that the same stretch of the English Channel was that night the focus of a sophisticated policing operation centred on a container ship from Brazil.

Around midnight on 30 May 2010 the Galwad came to the attention of the police surveillance teams. When its crew arrived on shore hours later, lugging baskets of lobster, they were arrested.

The following day a fisherman found 250kg of cocaine worth £53m floating in holdalls in the island’s Freshwater Bay.

Jamie Green and his Galwad crew – Scott Birtwistle, Daniel Payne and Zoran Dresic, along with local scaffolder Jonathan Beere – were jailed in June 2011 for up to 24 years each for conspiracy to import cocaine.

All five were far from the image of multimillion pound drug kingpins, described by friends and family as hard-working with modest lifestyles. None had previous convictions relating to drugs. Known as the Freshwater Five, all maintain their innocence.

Now compelling new evidence from the radar of a UK Border Agency surveillance vessel casts doubt over the safety of their convictions.

Not disclosed during the original trial, the nautical navigation data from the vessel’s Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) appears to show that information presented to the jury was incorrect.

Detailed in a fresh submission on the case to the court of appeal and seen by the Observer, lawyers believe the failure to submit the ECDIS evidence at the original trial “was a significant failure that has yet to be properly explored and explained away”.

The 22-page submission says that the inexplicable disappearance of the radar data was a serious shortcoming by the since disbanded Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), which coordinated the drugs operation that led to the jailing of the Freshwater Five.

“The absence of key material was a significant failing on the part of Soca and/or the experts deployed by the prosecution at trial,” the document adds.

Dated 2 October, the submission follows a six-year battle to obtain the radar evidence by lawyer Emily Bolton.

Bolton, director of Appeal, a charity law practice that fights miscarriages of justice, said: “This is a case where the investigating authorities developed chronic tunnel vision early on and ignored evidence that suggested they were pursuing the wrong suspects. And of course it snowballed from there.”

The prosecution case claimed the Freshwater Five were involved in a plot that entailed sailing behind a container ship, the Oriane, to recover 11 holdalls of cocaine tossed from its stern in the dark, in high seas.

Yet the new evidence reveals that the path of the fishing boat never crossed that of the container ship, making a transfer of drugs impossible.

Map for the Freshwater Five

In fact the ECDIS radar course suggests the Galwad never got sufficiently close to the Oriane to pick up the drugs.

The nautical data reveals that a UK Border Agency aircraft and cutter were closely monitoring the Oriane and subsequently tracked the container boat for over an hour after the Galwad left the area.

Such monitoring led the UKBA to “specifically discount the Galwad as the drugs-receiving vessel”, says the submission.

The radar data also provides striking new details that Bolton feels would have influenced the jury very differently.

Another small vessel, recorded as “A50” by the ECDIS, was tracked that night travelling “towards the position in which the drugs were found” nearly an hour after the Galwad had left the Freshwater Bay area. The mystery potential “suspect” boat was not disclosed at trial.

Expert analysis of the new data indicates the A50 is “likely to be a RHIB [rigid hulled inflatable boat] or fast power cruiser moving at 46 knots”.

The document for the court of appeal states: “It is submitted that A50 was either another suspect vessel or a vessel deployed by a law enforcement agency.

“If it was the latter, it would profoundly undermine any suggestion that the Galwad deposited the drugs, as the Soca officers were manifestly unaware where the drugs were to be found until the next day after their discovery by a fisherman.”

It adds: “The failure by the prosecution to examine and disclose the ECDIS product at trial deprived the defence of substantial arguments that might have led to different verdicts.”

Another central plank of the prosecution case is also challenged by the radar findings.

Film from a plane flying over Freshwater Bay the day after the Galwad returned to shore was shown at trial. Clearly visible are the holdalls of cocaine that had been discovered by then.

However, the new data shows that a surveillance aircraft flew over Freshwater Bay just after the Galwad passed through. Yet the hi-tech plane noted nothing out of the ordinary and did not report any unusual objects in the water.

“Had there been anything suspicious left in the water, the aircraft would have spotted it,” states Bolton.

Finally, the ECDIS data shows the crew of a UKBA cutter monitoring the Oriane “had visuals” on its rear deck at the time the drugs were said to have been thrown off. However, there is no entry in the ship’s log indicating this took place.

“The jury would then have had evidence that the Galwad was observed and disregarded on account of there being no activity on the stern of the Oriane at the relevant time,” states the submission.

Despite extensive searches, no traces of cocaine were found on either the Galwad or Oriane. The families of the Freshwater Five hope the case will be heard in the court of appeal early next year.