An elderly British husband and wife arrested on a cruise liner on suspicion of smuggling £2million (NZ$3.7million) of cocaine allegedly offered another couple a free holiday if they carried extra suitcases, it was claimed yesterday.
Roger and Sue Clarke allegedly told British friends they could visit paradise islands in the West Indies all expenses paid if they agreed to bring back some designer baggage.
Mr Clarke, 72, and his wife, 70, are in custody in Portugal after being arrested on their Caribbean cruise ship the Marco Polo when it docked in Lisbon last week. They are accused of smuggling 9kg (20lb) of high-grade cocaine hidden in false bottoms in their suitcases.
Fellow cruise passengers said Mr Clarke had gone ashore at St Lucia and returned with the four brand new cases. The pensioner is said to have boasted of paying £160 (NZ$296) for them compared with the £1,500 (NZ$2,777) they would have cost him in Harrods.
Portuguese police claim the cases were specially adapted with hidden metal compartments containing the drugs, evenly distributed among the four pieces of baggage found in the couple's £6,000 (NZ$11,110) cabin.
The Clarkes were regular cruise passengers and travelled the world's seas up to six times a year. Previously of Cheshire, they had been living on the Costa Blanca for the past three years.
Yesterday another British expat couple in Spain were furious as they claimed the Clarkes had offered them a free holiday in the Caribbean, in exchange for carrying some bags.
Paul and Pauline Craven, originally from Bolton, Lancashire, said they had turned down the "dodgy" offer.
Mrs Craven, 60, told the Mail: "I feel like we're two very lucky people and that could so easily have been us. They asked us last year to accompany them on a Caribbean cruise.
"I started a part-time job cleaning their home in Spain, near where we live, and they very quickly befriended us. We were flattered when they offered to treat us to a transatlantic cruise. It was a dream of a lifetime.
"Roger told us he imported pineapples from the Caribbean to the UK in containers and said he wanted me on the ship to keep his wife company. They offered to pay for everything."
She added: "It seemed too good to be true at first, and it was, because then they started saying we should buy some designer suitcases in the Caribbean because they could pick them up there cheap and we could sell them for two or three times more once we got to the UK.
"I didn't think anything of it initially but then they said we would need to put our clothes inside the suitcases we were supposed to buy.
"I couldn't understand how we'd be able to sell the cases for a profit when they were essentially second-hand because they would have been used.
"We turned them down after I checked out their story about the designer suitcases being sold in Harrods and discovered Harrods didn't stock them.
"I got asked to stop cleaning their house soon after we said we didn't want to go on the cruise with them."
Mr Craven, 64, a plumber, added: "They openly admitted to having criminal records so we knew they were both dodgy. They told us they had served time in prison after being caught trying to smuggle cigarettes in the back of a lorry.
"I never imagined, though, that they might be involved in cocaine smuggling.
"It sends a shiver down my spine to think of police coming into my cruise ship cabin and finding drugs inside a suitcase I'd agreed to put my clothes inside. That would have incriminated us."
He added: "We know other people have gone with them on holiday. They had some friends over from the UK to stay with them last year who then went back with them to England, so they could all go on a cruise together.
"Who knows what went on? Roger's lucky he's in prison at the moment because I think I'd lamp him now if I saw him."
Since his arrest on December 4, Mr Clarke has been held in a cell of the Policia Judiciaria, Portugal's serious crime investigation agency.
His wife is believed to be at Lisbon's only women's jail, Prison Tires, a crumbling 100-year-old building with a tin roof. Inmates there are kept up to four in a cell and can be expected to work making carpets for export under the supervision of local nuns.
The couple's cruise ship docked in Portugal after sailing from the Bahamas. Its final destination was Tilbury in Essex, from which it originally departed on November 5.
Portuguese police entered their cabin with a search warrant before allegedly discovering the 9kg of cocaine. The Clarkes have not been charged with any offence but remain "arguidos", formal suspects under Portuguese law.
Fellow passengers on the ship said the couple were friendly on board but had refused to appear in holiday photos.
One said: "They seemed just like any other couple they just really, really enjoyed a drink, but who doesn't? I went ashore with them a couple of times and Roger paid for everything with cash.
"Even on the boat he would just get wads of cash out of his pocket. They dodged all photos too, which is so odd for a cruise.
"Apart from that, they were just a lovely couple in their 70s having a good time in the sun."
Another passenger told The Sun newspaper: "When we got to St Lucia, Roger decided to go on shore alone and leave Sue on the boat. He told everyone he was going to meet friends and would see us later.
"Then he walked back on with four new suitcases and took them straight to his cabin. A friend said next thing he appeared on the pool deck and started bragging.
"He said, 'I tell you what Sue, I've done a really good deal £$200 for four suitcases. Wasn't that cheap? He said they would be £1,500 in Harrods'. Roger then gave one of his original suitcases to his cabin boy.
"The crew were all saying they had never seen anyone swap suitcases mid-journey."
The couple lived a luxury expat lifestyle in a three-bedroom villa on a residential estate called El Raso in Guardamar del Segura near Alicante on the Costa Blanca. Yesterday, neighbours spoke of their shock.
One said: "He seemed like a normal bloke. He didn't stand out as someone who was that well off or that down at heel, although they were away on holiday a lot.
"What he did stand out for, though, was his bull****. He said he imported fruit from the Caribbean to London in large containers, he said he'd been a boxer, a paramedic and a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant. I didn't believe anything that came out of his mouth."
Another acquaintance said: "Someone who heard his story about working as a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant happened to know the owner. The owner said he'd never heard of him.
"He also said he had been an ex-paratrooper but after the restaurant claim, I didn't believe him. He said he used to own two restaurants in Benidorm.
"Everyone knew he'd been in prison because he made no secret of it. He said he'd been caught cigarette smuggling but didn't go into much detail. Both he and his wife have been married before and as far as I know they had grown-up children from previous relationships.
"The Clarkes were members of a golf society at a British-run bistro-bar called Med.
A regular there said: "He wasn't one of the most-liked members of the society. He was really rude to the bar staff. He liked a drink and he was a big cigarette smoker. I've seen him have brandy and beer for breakfast.
"There was no sign of life at the Clarkes" shuttered-up white brick villa yesterday.
Cruise & Maritime Voyages, which operates the Marco Polo, said: "Portuguese police officials attended the Marco Polo in Lisbon last Tuesday and detained two passengers. It is understood this was in connection with the suspected possession of narcotics.
"Cruise & Maritime Voyages do not tolerate any criminal activity or anti-social behaviour on board their ships.
"A Foreign Office spokesman said: 'Our staff are in contact with the Portuguese authorities following the arrest of a British man and woman in Lisbon.'