Wife framed as a cocaine dealer

The Sunday Telegraph - Alasdair Palmer

17th December 2000

“Even now, I still can’t believe it all happened, that the man I was married to did all those things.” Kim James is a hard-working, non-drinking, non-smoking 29-year-old mother. A former model who now works as an aerobics instructor, she is bringing up her two-year-old son, Daniel, on her own. She shakes her head in disbelief as she ponders the events of the past year. “It is a complete mystery to me how my husband changed. I just can’t work it out at all . . .”

Her shock and bewilderment is understandable. Last Thursday, Simon James, Kim’s 34-year-old estranged husband, was convicted of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. In the summer of 1999, he had plotted, with Jonathan Rees, a private investigator, to have his wife arrested as a drug dealer. Rees had persuaded a corrupt police officer to fabricate an ‘intelligence report’ claiming that one of his informants had told him that Kim James was a cocaine dealer. He had her car broken into, and cocaine planted in it.

In response to the intelligence report, police officers duly searched Kim James’s flat and car on the night of June 15, 1999. They found several sachets of white powder in her car. She was arrested for ‘possession of cocaine with intent to supply’ - an offence that carries a mandatory sentence of seven years’ imprisonment. Kim, innocent, was faced not just with the horror of jail, but permanent separation from her son.

“It was,” she remembers, “the most awful thing imaginable - a terrifying nightmare in which I was trapped. I knew my husband must have been behind it, but I had no idea of how I could prove it and demonstrate that I was innocent. I was absolutely petrified of what would happen.”

What is most shocking about the case is how astonishingly easy it was for Simon James to engineer his wife’s arrest. He was angry about her decision to reduce his weekly contact with Daniel from three days to one. His response was to try to ensure that she was sent to prison for seven years and denied all contact with their child. He came appallingly close to succeeding.

On May 6, 1999, he walked into the offices of Law and Commercial, a private investigative agency in south London. Jonathan Rees was one of the firm’s two directors. James explained to Rees that he wanted custody of his son, but his lawyer had advised him that the courts would not award it to him - they would uphold his wife’s right to be the primary carer. He was sure, he said, that his wife was not fit to be a mother and could not be trusted to look after his son properly. How could he get the courts to agree with him?

Rees would eventually suggest a simple way to solve that apparently intractable problem: they could frame Kim as a cocaine dealer. He could arrange for the drug to be planted in her car and, through his police contacts, he could ensure that she would be searched and the drug found. She would go to prison - and, even if she did not, no judge in the country would allow his son to be looked after by a drug dealer. The cost of destroying his wife’s life would be £8,500.

Austin Warnes, a 37-year-old detective constable from the CID based at Bexleyheath Police Station, was offered £1,500 to plant a false report in the police crime computer. He readily accepted. The sum seems absurd: for a paltry £1,500, Warnes was willing not only to corrupt and pervert justice by implicating a young mother in a crime of which he knew she was innocent, but also to jeopardise his own career and risk a lengthy spell in prison - a particularly uncomfortable place for a police officer.

Despite the fact that the Met is determined to root out corruption and the Commissioner insists that there will be “no hiding place” for corrupt officers, Warnes was willing to run so great a risk for so small a reward. It is evidence of how confident he was that he would not be caught. A career police officer with two commendations from the Metropolitan Police for his “excellent” work, it is difficult to believe that it was the first time Austin Warnes had been involved in planting false intelligence into the crime computer.

Certainly the smoothness with which the operation proceeded suggests that Rees was experienced in having innocent people framed. And, indeed, that he was not ultimately successful was purely down to chance. For reasons unconnected to this case, officers from CIB3, the Met’s specialist anti-corruption squad, had planted a microphone inside Jonathan Rees’s offices at Law and Commercial. They believed that Met officers were corruptly selling him information from the Police National Computer. They had, therefore, started surveillance of his office to see if it revealed who those officers were.

For a month, the tapes of Rees’s conversations revealed nothing of interest. Then Simon James walked into his office. “We were faced with a very serious dilemma,” remembers Detective Chief Inspector Barry Nicholson, who was in charge of the CIB3 inquiry. “Should we intervene, tell Kim James and ensure that Rees’s and James’s conspiracy ended before they had actually done anything? Or should we let the operation continue until we had enough evidence to be sure that we could prosecute James, Rees and their criminal associates?

“After thinking long and hard, we decided that we could not simply let them get away with it. We had to let them proceed far enough to ensure that we got the evidence we needed to convict them. Of course, that meant we couldn’t tell Kim that we knew she was innocent. We couldn’t tell anyone. None of the police who arrested her knew anything about CIB3’s operation. We felt that we couldn’t risk the possibility that it all be fed back to Rees by a corrupt officer.”

CIB3’s decision to keep her in the dark is not one that Kim James feels wholly comfortable with: “I can see why they let it all go on. Of course I can. Yes, I know that they had to do what they did, and I can see why they couldn’t tell me. But, well, thanks guys! My life was a nightmare for several weeks.”

As far as Kim was concerned, there was nothing with which to prove her innocence. There was only a police report that she was a drug dealer and cocaine had been found in her car. As even her own lawyer pointed out, it looked very bad indeed.

Several weeks later, on July 19, officers from CIB3 would tell her that they knew she was innocent, that she would not be charged and that they knew who was behind the drugs being planted in her car. “We had to wait as long as we did because we wanted to flush out as many of the corrupt officers who were dealing with Rees as we could,” DCI Nicholson insists. “In the end, the only officer we had sufficient evidence to proceed against was Austin Warnes.”

When Warnes saw the evidence against him, he pleaded guilty. James and Rees both elected for trial, as did James Cook, the man who officers from CIB3 filmed breaking into Kim’s car and planting a package. Rees and James were both convicted. Cook was acquitted of conspiring to pervert the course of justice: it appears that the jury was convinced by his claim that he did not know what the package contained.

Judge Paul Collins described the crimes as “particularly grave”. He called Austin Warnes “a disgrace to the Metropolitan Police Service”, said Simon James was “egocentric and gullible” and noted that even Jonathan Rees's lawyer was “unable to disguise” the unattractiveness of his client’s evidence.

Judge Collins then handed down astonishingly light sentences for a conspiracy that would - had it succeeded in the way that its perpetrators intended “permanently and perhaps tragically have damaged two innocent lives”, to use the judge’s own words. Warnes received only four years for planting fictitious evidence. He will, as the judge stressed, be eligible for parole in two. Rees and James were given only six years each. They will be eligible for parole after three years.

“Given the severity of the crimes, we are surprised at the lightness of the sentences,” DCI Nicholson said. “The CPS will consider what grounds there are for appealing against them.”

Kim James, too, was shocked at the lenient treatment of the men who came so close to wrecking her and her son’s life. “If CIB3 hadn't happened to be listening in Rees’s office,”; she says with a sigh, “I would probably be in prison now, and my son would be with the man who had put me there. I still can’t quite get my head round that thought. It’s horrific, but it could have happened to me. What scares me is that it was so damn easy for them to frame me. All it takes is one corrupt policeman. Just one.”

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