Lee called me into his office. He told me to grab a pew. Lee said, “We’ll wait a few minutes. I’ve asked Eric Wright in on this meeting as I have something important to say to both of you.” We waited for Eric to enter the office.
I had heard of Eric and knew he was one of us on the Operation Julie squad. I had never met him before. He had a couple of years’ experience in Bristol city centre as a plain clothes officer. And a member of the Special Services Squad that specialised in combatting street car crime - a crime prevalent in that city. He had a reputation for being a solid no-nonsense thief taker.
The title of this chapter could have been ‘Jim and Undercover Preparation.’ I am told that a Bristol Vice Squad detective Jim Reuter had originally been chosen to partner me. I saw a recent photograph of Jim. He’s now in his 60’s of course, but looks every inch the hippie even now. It’s a fact he would have fitted in but I’m not so sure he would have been as reliable as Eric. I fear he may have “fitted in” too well if you get my drift.
Eric, not Jim, walked into the office with that tell-tale rolling gait. Eric looked like an extra out of a movie about the Vikings. He sported long red hair with a matching red moustache and beard. He wore trademark faded denim jeans and a scruffy old jacket.
“Morning, guv15,” said Eric to Lee.
Dick mumbled something back under his breath. I took a liking to Eric immediately. He seemed a friendly sort and appeared to have no airs and graces about him. We both waited for Lee to look up from his paperwork on the desk in front of him. He took his time. We remained patient.
“Right, you two.” The bark startled me.
“I have something special for the pair of you. It could be dangerous and if you want to say ‘no’ then it’s no problem.” Dick Lee knew how to grab my attention and arouse my curiosity.
He then outlined what he had in mind for us. It involved infiltrating a small rural community in Mid-Wales. The plan centred on a village called Llanddewi Brefi. By way of explanation, Lee added that the area was full of not just the Welsh locals and sheep. A small army of drop-out hippies lived in the area.
Lee added, “A man known as Smiles also lives in the village.”
This was the first time I heard this name.
Lee’s briefing was of necessity a monologue.
“We think Smiles is a key player in the LSD distribution chain and not too far removed from the top of the tree.”
Dick Lee clarified to us that Smiles remained our prime target and we had to do our best to get close to him and his social circles.
“I don’t expect miracles. I’m sure Smiles won’t let you too close and I’m bloody positive he won’t confide in you,” Lee opined.
“I need eyes and ears on the ground. That’s why I’m asking you two.”
We soon shared Dick Lee’s opinion about Smiles’ abilities. The intelligence on Smiles showed that he was experienced in the world of dealing drugs. He was too worldly wise to trust two complete strangers. He was a product of the Birmingham and London drug scenes. And, he had mixed with some heavy hitters before he upped sticks and moved to rural Wales.
After outlining his plan, Lee said, “Take your time. Let me know within a couple of days if you want to do it. If you do, then you’ll need to concoct a cover story. I want you in there in two weeks’ time from now.”
Eric and I glanced at each other before we left Lee’s office. I swear we both had the same stupid grin on our faces!
This development fell beyond my wildest dreams. Deep down I had no intention of turning down this opportunity. Alright, I did think about the danger aspect. I am unsure that danger is the right word. More a fear of the unknown. I thought for a few seconds. I dismissed any apprehension from my mind. Real undercover work at last! I loved the movie ‘Serpico’ and I wanted to be Frank Serpico. There was an element of potential danger. We knew of the story about a contract out for Martyn Pritchard. The bosses offered Martyn a semi-automatic pistol to carry for protection.
Would I have said yes to Dick Lee if I had known what lay ahead? Yes! I was young and loved the adrenaline kick of policing. I also believed at that time that I was doing the right thing. My part in helping society and the world to be a better place. How idealistic! How naive! What I didn’t know at the time is that there would be a personal price to pay.
Eric and I didn’t need the two days’ grace extended to us by Lee to decide. On leaving Lee’s office we set up camp in an empty office on another floor of the HQ building. We talked to each other for two to three hours. There was no one else involved in our new venture. We had a task and carte blanche about how to perform it. This was the time I formed my opinion of the man who sat in the same room as me. It was an opinion never to waver during the entirety of our undercover days together. The same opinion is intact to this day.
Eric had a pleasant lilting Gloucestershire accent - a country boy style of lilt. It contrasted with my city hewn accent. My dialect was still strewn with unmistakable Scouse from my years in Liverpool. I weighed him up. I had in mind Lee’s caveat that there was potential danger involved. I stood about 6’3” and on the slim side save for a small beer belly. My legs were the type that went on and on.
Eric was the opposite of me. He was roughly 5’9” with a broad physique. He possessed wide shoulders above muscled arms and thighs like tree trunks. The Viking look of the flame hair and wild beard made him look scary! I thought, ‘this is a guy I can trust in a fight.’ So I put my mind at rest about our safety in the event things got rough. Just as important, he was a man I felt at ease with. He was a gregarious person who enjoyed a laugh. And he had a keen sense of humour and an engaging likeable persona.
An undercover school, or training, did not exist. We had to make it up on the fly. If asked to write an undercover manual, this would be the first rule. If you worked undercover with a partner, you MUST be compatible. Compatibility does not mean you are clones of each other. Eric and I could be like chalk and cheese but we were compatible. We were a good mix; a team; Morecambe and Wise; Keegan and Toshack. Or, to use more recent examples – Suarez and Sturridge, even Ant and Dec! Or, as one British newspaper later dubbed us – Starsky and Hutch!
During our bonding chat, we both decided to let Lee know we were in. Why waste any time? He wanted us in place in two weeks so there was a lot to do. Lee had a big grin on his face following our announcement that he could count us in. Crafty old sod! He knew we weren’t going to refuse.
The initial chat between the two of us resulted in the sudden realisation that this was serious shit. We had a lot to do to prepare for the infiltration of Llanddewi Brefi. I needed to learn to pronounce it and spell it, for one. As I said, no rule book or manual existed to guide us. We used our common sense and a pooled cunning intuition. Part of that intuitive nature compelled us to spend most of the next two weeks in each other’s company. We had much to do and much to learn about each other.
We had to shed off the cloaks of Steve Bentley and Eric Wright. We needed new identities. The identities were one of the easiest parts to fix, or at least the physical aspects were. Before you create a new paper identity, you need a new name. I have no idea to this day what process we used to choose our new names – Steve Jackson and Eric Walker. You cannot carry your real ID with you when you go dark. A police warrant card is out of the question.
We spoke to Lee about our new IDs. In no time at all we each had a drivers’ licence in our new names. This man had connections! We pushed him on one further issue and he saw the force of our argument and arranged it. Lee arranged for false Criminal Record Office (CRO) files in our new IDs. Nothing too serious, just a possession (drugs) bust or two. And additionally in my case, a minor conviction for assault. It was important not to show jail time. If either one of us had claimed to have done time in prison that would have been a recipe for disaster. We would not have been convincing to anyone who had served time in real life, particularly when it came down to a discussion about a specific nick (prison). Prisons are close communities, and of course, closed communities. Everyone who has served time knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone else.
There was another valid and pressing reason for the fake IDs. This was the 1970s. Corruption was rife in certain departments and squads of London’s Metropolitan Police. If we infiltrated this Welsh village we did not want to run the risk of discovery. We aimed to get close to Smiles and the drugs distribution network. A bent, corrupt police officer could have been on the payroll of anyone connected to this drugs cartel. Furthermore, we could not risk the chance of a local Welsh bobby checking us out as a favour to one of the locals. This was just as corrupt in its own way, but not on the scale of the copper who is on the payroll of a criminal gang.
The local Welsh police officer is another key figure in rural communities, just like the postman at Carno. The less these local cops knew, the better. Sometimes, the cop’s wife would also know everything about her husband’s work. That could involve a potential for danger. Too many loose tongues abounded in these communities. In 1975, before Operation Julie, Lee and Detective Sergeant Richie Parry worked together. Parry was in charge of the Dyfed-Powys drugs squad. They believed that Smiles had a stash of over one thousand LSD tabs hidden in his home in Llanddewi Brefi, which fell under the Dyfed-Powys jurisdiction. A search party of local and Lee’s officers set off to raid Smiles’ home at Y Glyn. The uniformed Llanddewi Brefi officer went with them. Things went awry before they arrived. The local officer’s wife had walked the short distance from the village police house to Y Glyn. That was maybe fortunate for Smiles, possibly unfortunate for the police.
She knocked on the front door of Y Glyn. A bemused Smiles greeted her.
“Is my husband here? I have a message for him.”
She returned to the police house/station on receiving a polite, negative answer. Smiles could not believe his luck. She had unwittingly forewarned him about the impending raid. A short time later the raiding party arrived to find a relaxed Smiles and no sign of any drugs. They left disappointed and empty handed.
They later discovered the wife had received a call from a police colleague of her husband. He was trying to get a message to the local cop. At first, he called Aberystwyth police station, the venue the combined force search team had gathered for a briefing. The team had left for Llanddewi Brefi so he called the colleague’s wife to pass on his message.
That message began, “Your husband is on his way to Y Glyn so can you please pass this message on to him there.”
Keystone Cops! Or, Police Academy? Take your pick. It was indicative of the slackness and lack of professionalism in those parts.
One of the keys to going undercover is to keep as much truth about yourself as you dare to. I kept my real date of birth. Let me illustrate why. Imagine this scene -
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