(Image: ugc tnw)
W hen it comes to surreal drug-ring stories truth can be stranger than fiction. And the most bizarre drug tale of all took place 40 years ago in the heart of rural Wales.
It’s the anniversary of Operation Julie this month – one of the biggest drugs investigations the world has ever seen. It involved 800 officers drawn from 11 police forces who went undercover for more than a year to break an LSD ring that spread through 100 countries, provided 60% of global supply and was worth – in today’s money – half a billion pounds.
The figures of Operation Julie are as mind-blowing as a hallucinogenic trip. As is the fact so much of this war on drugs took place on the deeply unlikely frontline of Tregaron, Carno and Llanddewi Brefi.
But it’s the human stories that really fascinate – from the revelations of police officers who went so deep undercover they weren’t sure whether they were hippies or heddlu, to the loveable rogues who captured the hearts of the communities in which they were leading drug-dealing double lives.
As the 40th anniversary was looming my fellow journalist Charles Williams suggested Operation Julie would make an irresistible radio documentary. We were certainly not the only ones to recognise its media potential.
Within a decade the remarkable events were turned into a television drama, while Radio 4 followed up with an audio play last year. It has inspired countless books, a song by the Clash, and there’s even been talk of Operation Julie: The Musical.
Yet we have scored a notable scoop in securing the first-ever broadcast interview with a key figure from the criminal side of the LSD ring after Charles persuaded Alston Hughes – known as Smiles – to tell his side of the story.
(Image: Stephen Bentley)
(Image: Stephen Bentley)
While Dai Rees was grappling with the drug issues of west Wales in the early 70s, Richard Kemp had stumbled upon a method of creating the purest LSD the world had ever seen.
He and David Solomon recruited two others, Henry Todd and Leaf Fielding, to convert the LSD into tablet form and handle the distribution.
In 1973 the group split into two. Todd and Fielding established a London base, while Kemp moved to a remote farmhouse in Tregaron with GP girlfriend Christine Bott, a fellow former student from Liverpool University.
He set up a laboratory in the basement of a mansion 50 miles away in Carno, bought for him by his American friend Paul Arnoboldi.
To the locals the couple were just another pair of incomers who had arrived in search of the good life. They grew vegetables and Dr Bott bred goats to a standard that won her prizes in local agricultural shows. But in secret, Kemp was making LSD on a staggering scale – literally millions of doses were being created in the Carno mansion cellar.
Kemp’s incredible LSD factory remained under the police radar until he was betrayed by an old associate of David Solomon called Gerry Thomas.
Busted trying to smuggle cannabis into Canada, Thomas traded information in an attempt to win a lighter sentence. Naming Kemp, Bott, Solomon and a “man called Henry”, he shared his knowledge of the “biggest acid lab in the world”.
The intelligence was passed across the Atlantic, where Thames Valley Police had already noticed a huge increase of LSD on the festival scene.
They knew Kemp was in Wales. They knew he drove a red Range Rover. All that was needed was evidence to link Kemp to the crime. The breakthrough came in 1975 on the road from Aberystwyth to Machynlleth.
The late DS Richie Parry, another key Welshman in the inquiry, had contacted his old drugs squad colleague Don Evans – by this time a traffic inspector for Dyfed-Powys – and told him to get in contact immediately if a red Range Rover was ever involved in an incident.
“It was pure coincidence one afternoon when the control room got in touch to say there had been a fatal accident involving a red Range Rover and a Mini estate,” Don recalled. “It had been a terrific crash, head-on, and in the passenger seat of the Mini there was a deceased young lady, her husband was alongside her and it was a very serious accident.”
Richard Kemp and Christine Bott escaped with their lives from the crash, which left a Welsh minister seriously injured and his pregnant wife dead, but they left behind a scrap of evidence that would spark the biggest drugs investigation in British history.
When the Range Rover was impounded and stripped fragments of paper were found which when pieced together revealed the words hydrazine hydrate – a chemical involved in the production of LSD.
This was the breakthrough that prompted the creation of Operation Julie. In April 1976 the cream of officers from 11 police forces were convened at police headquarters in Devises.
They thought they were attending a surveillance course but it was revealed to them they had been brought together to form Britain’s biggest ever undercover drugs squad.
And they needed a name. When in walked Sergeant Julie Taylor, of the Wiltshire force, to offer them all a cup of tea, Operation Julie it became. The investigation would involve 800 policemen and women. Nothing like it had been seen before or has been since.
Dai Rees’ mission was to locate and survey Kemp’s secret acid lab. But before he went undercover for a year, he had to go native.
“I let my hair grow, I had the most monstrous beard – we evolved from being grey-suited detectives to hippies over a period of time.”
He and his similarly unkempt colleagues set up watch from the cover of an industrial caravan. But without any of the technology today’s police take for granted 24/7 surveillance was not without its challenges in the 70s – particularly when Welsh wildlife got in the way.
Sheep gnawed through wires, turning them from recording devices into aerials that picked up hymn- singing on Radio Cymru, while all that could be heard on microphones was the cheep of blackbirds.
But animals could be useful too. After observing a frenzied period of comings and goings at the Carno mansion – as Kemp and Bott appeared to be getting rid of equipment – Dai received a tip-off that the house was now empty.
Ordered by Operation Julie command to break in, Dai and his partner, Terry Stokes, got into the cellar at night and discovered a brilliant white room stripped bare. Among the samples they sent back for analysis were a dead frog and a mole found in the drains.
“The scientist confirmed in a great moment of joy that there was pure LSD in all our samples – including the frog and the mole,” Dai recalled.
“They must have had a great trip through the drainage systems of mid Wales!”
As Dai Rees and Terry Stokes gathered crucial evidence of the production side of the LSD ring other officers were closing in on the distribution side.
Operation Julie head honcho Detective Inspector Dick Lee was undercover in Tregaron, posing as an antiques dealer. He took with him Dave Redrup, a Welsh-speaking South Wales policeman, as his assistant.
They took to drinking in the Talbot. Redrup overheard locals gossiping about them. Being the fictional “only gay in the village” of Llanddewi Brefi is one thing, but in 1970s Tregaron it wasn’t good. A female officer was drafted in to stop tongues wagging.
Their attention turned to another local cottage, Esgairwen, which was owned by friends of Richard Kemp and Christine Bott. Like her, they were both doctors. The police kept watch on the house – it was being prepared for active service as an LSD laboratory.
In the first months of 1977 the pressure was on Operation Julie to reach its climax. The drugs lab at Esgairwen still wasn’t operational, but huge quantities of LSD were obviously being shifted, and key players were beginning to book air tickets that would take them out of the police’s reach.
There was pressure from the police top brass to bring a hugely expensive operation to an end. More pressingly, the tabloid press had got wind of a major drugs bust that was about to take place in Wales.
At 5 o’clock on the morning of March 26, 1977, the police swooped on 87 premises all over Britain. They made 122 arrests. Under interrogation, the plea-bargaining began. Some of the suspects began to betray each other in turn for lighter sentences, and reveal the whereabouts of cash and drugs.
In October 1977, Dai Rees and his officers dug beneath the floor tiles in Richard Kemp and Christine Bott’s kitchen in Tregaron. In a plastic box there was 1.3 kilos of acid crystals – enough to make acid tabs worth £65,000,000 – today, that’s nearly half a billion pounds.
The 17 major players were sentenced to a total of 124 years in prison. Richard Kemp and his original partner, Henry Todd, got 13 years. Leaf Fielding and Alston Hughes – Smiles – got eight years. Kemp’s partner and goat-enthusiast Christine Bott was sentenced to nine years, which many of her fellow defendants thought harsh.
“Bott got nine years for making sandwiches. I got 10 for making acid,” said one, ruefully.
There were mixed feelings on the other side of the law. Despite his pride in the men and women who had broken one of the biggest drug rings in history there was sadness too as Dai Rees watched those he had brought to justice sentenced.
“Initially we treated them as villains,” he explained. “But as we got to know them we built up a level of respect. Not that we admired them, but we had established knowledge of them as individuals.
“They were educated people who were either chemists, doctors, accountants and had used their extreme talents for a criminal enterprise.
“That was very sad. And I’m not ashamed to say when I was standing behind them on the day they were sentenced I had a tear in my eye to think such wonderful, clever people were going to go to jail for a considerable time.”
To hear more about the remarkable story of Operation Julie listen to When Acid Reigned on BBC Radio Wales today at 1.30pm, repeated tomorrow at 6pm.