Mr Smith goes to . . . Customs House
It's all in the body language
This is a story with a peg, as it's known in the trade. In other words, it's got a newsy angle. Not only that, but it concerns a false leg. A man called Yenline Neil, who comes from Jamaica, has begun a ten-year prison sentence after being convicted of smuggling £65,000-worth of cocaine into Britain inside his artificial limb. The jury heard that a sniffer dog at Gatwick took an interest in Neil as ground staff were purring him through Arrivals on an electric buggy. Customs officers put Neil's prosthetic pin through an X-ray machine and then impounded it. In the matchless copy of the agency's court report: "He was later issued with a replacement leg during the run-up to the trial." Neil maintained that he'd taken his leg in for repairs before his trip. He claimed not to have noticed any extra weight when he got it back, although the gear would have given him a slight list.
Customs and Excise are pleased with this success against the traffickers, but a spokesman warned: "They will put the drugs anywhere that they think they have the least chance of being detected."
At Customs House, near the Tower of London, officers have such a collection of smuggling accessories that it's a kind of black museum. Or, given what this kit has concealed, a white museum. On a rare open day at the former royal warehouse, where Geoffrey Chaucer once made a living collecting dues on "sea coal" for the king, I saw some of the ingenious conveyances for contraband. There was a family sized tin of gherkins. Not everyone's cup of tea, certainly, but not in itself illegal. Filled with heroin, however, these appetisers had been turned into canapes to make the party swing. There was a New English Bible with a stash-shaped hollow in it, and a whimsical cocaine container disguised as a plaster bust of one of the Seven Dwarfs. Yes - you're ahead of me - Dopey.
When they're not busting illicit garden furniture or bent snacks, Customs are on the lookout for products made from protected species. I was studying a pair of snakeskin loafers, wondering at the dandified tassels on them, when I realised that these pom-poms were in fact the heads of the snakes. Another exhibit was a valise lined with bird boxes. A nest-robber had tried to take rare species out of the country in his luggage.
"So how did you rumble him?" I asked an officer. "Did he sound like the dawn chorus at check-in?"
"No, it was dark in the bag so the birds would have been asleep," she said. If the case had been full of clothes or something, he would have thrown it about a bit. But we noticed that he was handling it very delicately. Customs officers get results by observing body language, whether the suspect is the birdman of Terminal 4, or labouring under the weight of a wooden leg resembling nothing so much as a mighty crack pipe.
Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter