Nerve agent: Three men caught trying to smuggle bicarbonate in to UK

Image copyright PA Image caption Craig Heatherington, left, and Michael Vassery were jailed for seven years and three months and three years respectively

Three men have been jailed for attempting to smuggle a chemical which can be used to make a deadly nerve agent.

The men used specialist fish tanks to carry around 88 kilos of sodium bicarbonate – the main ingredient in dissolving cocaine.

The compound also helps make a toxic gas used by dictatorships – and has been used to poison dissidents in Syria and Ukraine.

Heatherington, Vassery and Wayne Sheridan were jailed for seven years and three months and three years respectively.

Image copyright PA Image caption The group planned to hide the chemical in a kebab supplier they were hoping to work for

They tried to hide the chemical from customs and police at the port of Manchester and tried to have it sent overseas.

The group was a pack of wrong ‘uns who were either stupid or just wasn’t thinking straight, their barrister explained.

Sandy Moore, prosecuting, said there was one batch of cocaine for sale that was powder and another that contained sodium bicarbonate, which could be dissolved in a glass of water, which wasn’t going to sell.

They hired two boats in 2014 to go on what was supposed to be a brief sailing expedition to Morocco.

But their trips were only intended to be “socials” and the plan was to get their methadone to dealers in Spain to help them to sell the cocaine.

Instead they sailed to Morocco – supposedly in an effort to find a kebab shop.

Their plan was foiled when French investigators suspected they were involved in a drugs operation with, in fact, salvia divinorum.

Where it went wrong

The prosecution said the group had one goal: to help the biggest drug dealers in Spain import cocaine into the UK and smuggle it into Britain by disguising it as a bouquet of flowers.

Border Force staff – in particular, one inspector – spotted they were acting suspiciously when they arrived, by using fewer boarding passes than were allowed, and opted to wait in a later arrival queue rather than joining others waiting to make their entries.

The men booked in for charter flights to Morocco, but one of the men failed to board the flight and instead asked the salesman for the chemicals which would make the drugs.

Police seized drug-filled water containers and it was when the trial started that they discovered evidence from Customs Officers of where the chemicals had been hidden on the boat which had been travelling from North Wales to Morocco.

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Image copyright PA Image caption The chemicals contained in the nitrous oxide compound have been used in the use of dissidents and despots who set off poison gas on their own people

Presenting the case for the prosecution, the Honourable Mr Andrew Baxter QC said the chemical crystals recovered contained bicarbonate, an ordinary chalky material used to dissolve the white powder cocaine into liquid.

Image copyright PA Image caption The group were hoping to use the chemical to try and smuggle the drug in to Spain

“The chemical compounds are toxic,” he said. “Those that are added to [bicarbonate] are capable of producing nitrous oxide, a potent chemical commonly used by dissidents who are fomenting revolutions.”

He said it was “entirely possible” that liquid cocaine was mixed with nitrous oxide and the resulting gas was inhaled.

In a bid to foil the customs officers, who had intercepted an earlier shipment of bicarbonate, the group hired two yacht skippers and booked on to a Russian catamaran that was to be deployed to smuggle the chemicals to Spain.

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