Roger Clarke and Susan Clarke are an elderly British couple charged by Portuguese authorities with smuggling 9 kilos (20 pounds) of cocaine valued at over $1 million. The unassuming Roger, 72, and Sue, 70, appeared in a Lisbon courtroom on September 17.
The two were arrested on December 4, 2018, aboard a cruise ship docked in Lisbon. Portuguese police discovered the cocaine during a 4:50 a.m. raid of the couple’s cabin on the MC Marco Polo. The drugs had been sewn into four pieces of luggage.
Lisbon was the last leg of the Clarkes’ 32-day trip that visited ports of call in the Caribbean, the Azores, and Madeira, Portugal, before concluding in Tilbury, England. Portuguese detectives claim the two were drug mules working for a major British narcotics trafficking ring that distributes cocaine throughout Europe. The Clarkes told the Lisbon court’s three judges they were innocent victims duped by a mysterious UK-based Jamaican man who asked them to help with his import/export fruit business.
In return for their work, the Clarkes said the mystery man thanked the couple by picking up the £6,800 ($8,480) tab for their cruise, then arranged to give them a few pieces of expensive luggage to take back to the U.K. to sell. “I am so sorry we are here but we never ever knew drugs were in them,” Roger Clarke said.
Portuguese Prosecutor Manuela Brito has said their story was nonsense, contending that two retirees traveling the globe during their golden years served as the perfect cover for a drug-smuggling operation. “There is no doubt that as carriers or owners of the drugs, they did what they are accused of and they knew what they were carrying,” she said.
The punishment in Portugal for drug trafficking is up to 12 years in prison. The Clarkes are currently housed in different facilities but have occasionally been allowed to see each other. The verdict and sentencing will be announced on September 26.
Here’s what you need to know about Roger and Sue Clarke.
1. Roger & Susan Clarke Spent over $22,000 on Cruises in Two Years
Roger Clarke was a former chef and truck driver, and wife Sue had worked as a secretary. The pensioners’ supposedly made ends meet on just $1,100 a month after paying rent, yet they’d spent about $22,469 on lavish cruises over the last two years.
Roger Clarke told Portuguese detectives the cruises were paid for out of “savings from hard work.” The Portuguese online news service JN reported the couple usually cruised six times a year. Passengers on their last cruise recalled Roger Clarke frequently picked up the tab for drinks and his pockets were always full of money.
When they weren’t cruising, the Clarkes seemed to live uneventful, mundane lives. Their diaries detailed activities like bowling, bingo, and occasional dinners with friends. Sue Clarke enjoyed her retirement by taking yoga and spin classes.
In court, Roger Clarke shared that their tranquil, modest lifestyle has come to an end. “They have stopped our pensions, my family has sold our car to raise money for our lawyers, we have lost all our possessions. We have nothing.”
2. The Clarkes Claim a Man Named “Lee” Asked Them to Negotiate Fruit Deals in the Caribbean
According to the Clarkes, they’d befriended a Jamaican man named “Lee” and his associate, “George Wilmot,” who they also referred to as “Dee.” The Clarkes claim Lee and Wilmot asked them to meet with a middleman exotic fruit dealer in St. Lucia.
“Some people we knew were aware we were occasionally going on Caribbean cruises and asked me to negotiate to buy exotic fruit for shipment back to the U.K.,” Roger Clarke explained. “It was something I did for them with no problem on earlier cruises and so I said ‘yes’ this time around,” he added.
In addition to paying for their cruise, “Lee” also offered them an additional stream of income. His St. Lucia middleman would give the Clarkes high-end suitcases that Lee claimed the Clarkes could sell to the London department store Harrods for a £1,500 ($1,870). The Clarkes said they were going to use the suitcases as samples.
Sue Clarke claimed that she and her Roger only met “Lee” and his wife, “Claudette” once on June 15, 2018. Authorities have yet to track down “Lee,” “Claudette” or George Wilmot.
“Despite all the inquiries carried out to try to identify the people believed to have recruited them to transport the cocaine, it has not been possible to discover these individuals’ full identities or determine their whereabouts” Policia Judiciara inspector Carla Nunes said.
Nunes also contradicted Roger Clarke’s assertion that he’d given Portuguese law enforcement contact information for Lee and George Wilmot. She did admit that forensic exams of the Clarke’s phones and iPad had not been completed and it’s unknown if U.K. law enforcement ever confirmed the existence of the elusive businessmen.
Brito told the court about the couple’s prior conviction and asked Roger Clarke why “a man of your age and life experience,” would consent to transport luggage from someone the couple only knew by his first name.
“I have known Lee and Dee for years,” Roger Clarke responded. “We thought they were genuine friends and we were just happy to do them a favor.”
Former friends Paul and Pauline Craven said the Clarkes told them they made some extra money importing fruit from the Caribbean. In 2016, they even invited the Cravens to join them on an all-expense-paid Caribbean cruise. “He told us he’d been going to the Caribbean on cruises to export pineapples to Britain. He called it ‘the pineapple run’ and said he’d been doing it for a few years and was making £15,000 each time,” Paul Craven told The Sun.
The Cravens revealed that the only catch was that they’d have to bring back some empty suitcases. “As soon as the suitcases were mentioned . . . there was no way we could get involved,” Pauline said, adding that they soon dropped the Clarkes as friends.
3. Portuguese Law Enforcement Was Tipped off about the Clarkes by British Authorities
Portuguese police received a tip from Britain’s National Crime Agency giving them a heads up that the Clarkes were carrying cocaine they’d picked up in St. Lucia. It’s unknown how the NCA received the information.
Portuguese authorities originally planned to arrest the couple in the Portuguese port city of Funchal but bad weather resulted in the stop being canceled. When police caught up with the Clarkes in Lisbon they maintained their innocence.
But when pressed, both Roger and Sue admitted that they had picked up suitcases at a bar near a duty-free area while docked in the St. Lucia. When asked about the luggage they had originally brought onto the ship at the beginning of the trip, the Clarkes said they gave one suitcase to a cabin steward and the other two pieces to Lee’s Caribbean middleman. Police also discovered that the Clarkes told Passport Control they’d just come in from Kent, England rather than the Caribbean.
4. Roger & Sue Clarke Had a Previous Drug Trafficking Conviction in Norway
Although the Clarkes both insist they are innocent, they have a prior history of drug smuggling. In 2010 the couple was convicted of trafficking 550 pounds of cannabis resin in Norway.
In 2005, an off-duty Norwegian customs official witnessed the Clarkes removing the drugs from a hidden compartment in their car. It is illegal to sell or transport cannabis in Norway. Norwegian law enforcement investigated the Clarkes and learned that the two had traveled to Norway 16 times between May 2003 and August 2004. The couple was convicted of drug trafficking but fled the country. After several years on the run, the Clarkes were caught in England and returned to Norway. Roger served five years and Sue got a four-year sentence
Also known as hashish, Europe currently has the largest market for cannabis resin in the world. The drug is often smuggled in through Spain, due to the county’s close proximity to North Africa. The Clarkes had emigrated from the United Kingdom to Spain several years ago. At the time of their arrest in Portugal, the couple was living in a rented villa in Guardamar del Segura near Alicante on the Costa Blanca.
5. Authorities Claim Roger Clarke & Susan Clarke Began Cruising to Smuggle Larger Quantities of Drugs
Portuguese law enforcement said the Clarkes had been smuggling drugs during trips they’d taken to South America in 2017 and 2018. The first trip the Clarkes made was by plane, however, “subsequent trips were made by cruise ships which allowed them to carry a larger amount of drugs,” a Portuguese police report noted.
Authorities estimate the Clarkes made a $52,000 profit for each smuggling trip. “There’s no doubt Roger and Susan Clarke had contact with drug trafficking organizations. They traveled to South America, to countries which were linked to the transport of cocaine to Europe,” the report added.