How security boss John 'Winky' Watson was involved in cocaine plot

A very crooked crime fighter: How one man helped flood the streets he was paid to protect by exasperated residents with millions of pounds of cocaine… which smugglers had stashed in seaside homes, including one owned by Miriam Margolyes

Promoting his business, John ‘Winky’ Watson liked to portray himself as a crime-fighting pillar of the community.

For a bargain price, starting at just £13 a year, homeowners in Teesside could sign up with the 41-year-old’s private security company for round-the-clock protection.

‘It makes people sleep well at night, knowing we are out on patrol,’ said Watson, a former soldier in the Green Howards.

Businesses including the Holiday Inn joined disgruntled locals fed up with a wave of burglaries and anti-social behaviour, and before long Watson was on his way to becoming a cult figure.

In a 2019 Channel 4 documentary, Skint Britain, he was filmed hitting a punchbag inside Redcar Boxing Club, and walking around nearby Hartlepool signing up new customers. 

‘These people work long hours and they don’t want some little b****** robbing their belongings,’ he told the producers, warming to his role as self-styled people’s champion.

Promoting his business, John ‘Winky’ Watson liked to portray himself as a crime-fighting pillar of the community. For a bargain price, starting at just £13 a year, homeowners in Teesside could sign up with the 41-year-old’s private security company for round-the-clock protection

But others were not so sure. In Parliament, questions were asked about the legality of such services amid fears they might undermine the public’s confidence in traditional law-enforcement agencies. 

Watson, who even appeared in an interview with Kate Garraway on Good Morning Britain in 2018 to defend his company, JWS Security, had no such qualms, boasting that his service was ‘better’ than the police.

‘Their hands are tied with resources,’ said the 16 st boxer and gym owner. ‘They haven’t got the manpower.’

We now know one of the reasons for that. Because far from trying to reduce crime, Watson was actually fuelling it by helping to flood the streets he was being paid to protect with cocaine.

As for his overstretched local police force, it was busy using its resources and manpower to investigate him and his criminal associates — in the process smashing one of the most sophisticated drug-smuggling rings this country has ever seen.

It is only now, with the conviction of Watson and three other men this month, that the full extraordinary story behind Operation Spoonbill can be told. 

In an investigation spanning the globe, detectives from Cleveland Police, one of Britain’s smallest forces, pieced together how two crime bosses — Lance Kennedy and Jonathon Moorby — had joined forces to import and distribute huge amounts of cocaine.

The drugs were flown in to South-East England from Europe by chartered helicopter. 

Deliveries were then made to holiday homes rented by the gang from their unsuspecting owners, the chopper pilots momentarily deviating from submitted flight plans to drop off the drugs.

One such house on the coast near Dover happened to belong to the actor Miriam Margolyes, who played Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter movies.

Cash and drugs were then distributed across Britain concealed in customised vehicles — in one Audi A6, police found £69,000 in a secret compartment which was opened by operating the cigarette lighter.

In total, half a tonne of highly pure cocaine worth £17.25 million was imported over five months, between December 2015 and April 2016.

But over six years, police painstakingly took down the operation, gang member by gang member.

Moorby was finally arrested after fleeing from police by speedboat in Thailand, while Kennedy was detained by an armed military operation as he tried to cross a river into Ukraine.

In all, 33 individuals have now been jailed in separate trials, receiving a combined total of 262 years’ imprisonment for their roles in the gang.

Where once they arrogantly believed they were beyond the reach of the law — two gang members even set up a clothing company called ‘Cartel’ — they are now all locked up behind bars.

Watson appeared in an interview with Kate Garraway on Good Morning Britain in 2018 to defend his company, JWS Security

‘This was probably the biggest investigation that Cleveland Police and its organised crime unit has ever embarked upon,’ Detective Chief Inspector Sarah Robinson, who led the operation, told the Mail.

‘We didn’t just look at the bottom level and the street dealers — to put a stop to this we disrupted and dismantled them right up to the very top.’

In 2016, academics published research which suggested that cocaine use in parts of Teesside was higher per person than in major European cities including Amsterdam, London and Paris.

The results were found by analysing domestic waste water and measuring residue of the Class A drug.

In Middlesbrough, usage fluctuated between 508mg and 707mg per 1,000 people; while in Stockton, a market town in Co Durham, it hit 1,307mg on Fridays. That compared with an average of 234mg in Paris.

Cleveland’s head of crime, Detective Chief Superintendent John Bent, summed up the situation recently, saying: ‘Drugs and associated crime cause untold misery to our communities, and this demonstrates that we will not tolerate this activity in our force area.’

Yet throughout this time, John Watson was being hailed as a local hero, a ‘family man’ and a ‘gentleman’ who, along with his nursery worker wife, Joanne, was widely respected in the community.

A councillor in the crime-ravaged Redcar suburb of Grangetown, where Watson was brought up, was reported as saying: ‘John runs a boxing club and wants to provide another for kids in Grangetown. 

‘He’s making such a difference to those children and provides free security for the charity I run.’

Locals, meanwhile, continued to see Watson as something of a saviour.

Back in 2018, Gillian Thomas, then 50 and married to Sean, who ran a building firm, told a local journalist why she had signed up to JWS Security, explaining: ‘It made sense because the whole village was just sick of what was happening.

‘It was going on night after night —theft, criminal damage anti-social behaviour and threats — and it had reached the point where people were going to take matters into their own hands because they were sick of nothing being done.

‘The nearest police stations are in neighbouring towns and aren’t manned 24 hours. A private firm made sense to us.

‘I can’t speak for anyone else, but for less than £1 a week we feel a lot safer in our own home because we know if there’s a problem we have a number to call and there will be someone straight out here.’

Another local, Louise Wright, 39, a mother of four from Redcar, also signed up to JWS Security after her front windows were smashed by a thug with a crowbar around 4am one morning in September 2018.

She said at the time: ‘It was terrifying. My children were in bed and we were left with our nerves in tatters.

‘I called the police, and although they took the details, they never sent anyone out to investigate, which made me think they weren’t in any way interested in catching whoever was responsible.

‘It felt as though I’d been brushed off, and I know many people around here who feel the same.’

And in a cruelly ironic twist, some people even believed that by calling in the services of John Watson, they were helping to remove the scourge of drugs and their associated crime from their streets.

Shopworker Sarah Templeman, a 45-year-old mother of three, invited Watson to her home village of Lingdale, North Yorks, which had seen a crimewave in June 2018.

‘For 11 days, an average of five cars a night were being broken into and things stolen from them. 

‘My daughter’s boyfriend is a roofer and had his work van broken into and his tools and snooker cue stolen.

‘One of these yobs was seen with the cue in its metal case the following day on his way to Middlesbrough, so we contacted the pawn shops to warn them.

‘Sure enough, his £300 cue had been sold for a tenner to buy drugs. We knew which shop and we knew the culprits were on CCTV.

‘We told the police and no one went out — nothing was done. He ended up having to buy his own cue back for £10.

‘When stuff like that happens, your faith that the police can still keep law and order disappears.’

And while anyone who has ever tried to interest the police in a burglary or act of vandalism will certainly recognise the frustration locals felt at the force’s apparent lack of activity, Cleveland Police were only too well aware of the drug problem dwarfing Teesside.

Because by then, Operation Spoonbill was underway, the officers’ interest piqued by the activities of a former hotel manager by the name of Jonathon Moorby.

After a huge drugs haul was found at his home in North Yorkshire, he was charged with possessing cocaine and amphetamines with intent to supply.

But in June 2014, while awaiting trial, he fled the country, and headed to Thailand. In his absence, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Even though he was no longer in Britain, police believed 51-year-old Moorby was still smuggling drugs into the country.

In April 2016, an encrypted mobile phone found on a drug-runner in a vehicle carrying cocaine proved established links to a Liverpool crime group run by Lance Kennedy, 34.

A father-of-four and the former director of a sofa company, Kennedy had grown up in the Wirral but controlled operations from a base near Barcelona.

By switching their focus to couriers bringing in drugs from the North-West, police struck gold in September 2016 when they stopped a van driven by Connor Fraser-Clark and his wife, Alison. 

More than £200,000 in cash was found hidden in secret compartments in the vehicle.

A search of the couple’s home on the Wirral led to the discovery of 16 kg of high-purity cocaine concealed beneath a cot. The drugs had a street value of £11 million.

More crucial still was information found on their phones which gave clues as to how the cocaine was being imported into the UK.

‘They [the couple] spoke to each other and spelt out what they were up to and what the upper echelons of the group were up to, which was when we really started to unpick and unravel what was going on,’ explained a detective involved in the case. 

Specifically, there were references to helicopters and a trip taken by Fraser-Clark to Dover.

In total, police would go on to identify six helicopter trips in which drugs had been dropped off, matching the suspicious flights to the movements of gang members.

Remote holiday homes were used to receive the deliveries, among them Miriam Margolyes’s £600,000 property, perched on the White Cliffs of Dover.

Called Gun Emplacement Cottage, it fitted the needs of the gang perfectly being both remote and close to the Continent.

When news of the property’s involvement subsequently emerged, Margolyes joked that people had started to refer to her as ‘Miriam Escobar’ (after the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar)

Unbeknown to its owner, it was used for a drop-off on April 13, 2016, when 160 kg of cocaine worth at least £5.5 million was delivered to the gang. 

When news of the property’s involvement subsequently emerged, Margolyes joked that people had started to refer to her as ‘Miriam Escobar’ (after the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar).

Just days before Christmas a helicopter briefly disappeared off the radar near Faversham. 

It reappeared eight minutes later near Eastling, a tiny Kent village close to the cottage. Phone mast intelligence linked gang members to the area at the time.

Later, following a dispute over unpaid rent that led to the holiday booking being cancelled, two men with Liverpudlian accents arrived at the property, saying they needed to collect children’s clothes and toys that had been left there. 

The manager watched them pull two holdalls from a cupboard under the stairs. 

The bags were so heavy the men had to drag them to their vehicle. Police believe they contained cocaine that had been delivered by the helicopter.

Properties in Buckinghamshire and Essex were also used by the Dutch pilots. Once off-loaded, the drugs were couriered across the UK to be sold.

With the pieces of the jigsaw in place, police moved in to arrest the gang, capturing Lance Kennedy and his deputy in February 2019 as they attempted to cross a river from Moldova into Ukraine.

Having admitted conspiracy to supply Class A drugs, in July 2019 Kennedy was sentenced to 18 years and four months in prison. Eleven of his associates were jailed, too.

Moorby, meanwhile, had been tracked down to Thailand after police received a tip-off that his son had visited him there.

In May 2017, armed officers raided his luxury villa on the island of Koh Samui. But Moorby had hired a speedboat and fled to another island, where he was arrested.

After three years on the run he was finally extradited to the UK in 2019, where he was later jailed for 14 years, to run consecutively to the 15 years he had been sentenced to before going on the run.

‘Your role was as a leader — you remained in Thailand, while local dealers did your bidding,’ the judge told him.

More court cases would follow, culminating in the trial of John Watson this month.

The court heard how phone records had linked him and three other men to drugs being couriered in from Liverpool, and payments involving tens of thousands of pounds in cash.

This month he was found guilty of conspiring to supply drugs and will be sentenced at a later date.

Watson denied any wrongdoing and insisted the phone calls were just ‘mates calling their mates’.

And earlier this week his wife, Joanne, appeared to suggest that he was a ‘victim’ — targeted because of his high profile.

‘We as a family feel this is a personal vendetta, with no proof or substantial evidence against John; an arrest after four years with no surveillance, that came one year after opening this company and providing the public with something they . . . were crying out for,’ she wrote on Facebook.

Maybe. But whether they would have been ‘crying out for it’ had they known what they now know about their knight in shining armour is another matter entirely. 

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