Saturday, October 20, 2018

A Drug Bust, Revisited



Former Australian diplomat Brian Milgate entangled with drug smugglers at Kochi in 1983 and went through harrowing experiences. After writing a screenplay, he had recently come to Kochi with an idea of making a bilingual film
 
By Shevlin Sebastian

In January, 1983, sailor Brian Milgate set sail from Darwin, Australia, accompanied by his girlfriend Alison McGuinness, to take part in a transatlantic yacht race from Britain.
 
However, near the coast of Sri Lanka, the rudder of his yacht ‘Tiger Rag’ got entangled with a fishing net. He pushed on, but a sudden storm made it difficult. Since he was near Kochi, he stopped near the Bolgatty Palace for repairs.
 
Soon, he befriended a fellow Australian named James Howard, who had been living at the Palace for a year with his girlfriend Jyl Gocher. A retired photojournalist, James told Brian he was going to England for a medical check-up and would bring back spare parts for his yacht. But, in return, Brian should supervise the repairs which were taking place on his own boat ‘Steppenwolf’. Brian agreed. Soon, James left.
 
As Brian began working on the ‘Steppenwolf’, he became suspicious. “There were sophisticated electronic equipment, a powerful transmitter, a satellite-linked navigator, computers and dark-room equipment,” says Brian, while on a recent visit to Kochi where he stayed at the Bolgatty Palace.
 
And James did not return by plane. Instead, he came on a ship called the ‘Hetty’ in March and was accompanied by a man called Richard Merkley. The latter was known in drug enforcement circles as a narcotics trafficker.
 
Brian aired his suspicions to the Customs at Kochi. They raided the ship but did not find anything incriminating. James was incensed. He hired a couple of men to kill Brian, but the latter managed to escape.
 
Brian then spoke to Maxwell Fernandes, a reporter of the Indian Express who published the story. It created a furore. James filed a defamation suit against Brian, who had to hire a lawyer to defend himself
 
In the end, Brian managed to return to Perth along with Allison. Thereafter, he did intensive research and sent letters regarding his suspicions about the ‘Hetty’ to the drug enforcement agencies in London and Washington.
 
Meanwhile, the ‘Hetty’ set sail from Kochi. And sometime in November, when it appeared near the coast of New Jersey, the US Coast Guard intercepted it. A search was done. Below a cargo of timber, there were 13 tonnes of hashish in the form of bricks. It was worth $200 million and was one of the biggest international drug hauls ever. 

“I was told that because of this interception, the Mafia in America lost $75 million which they had paid as an advance for the consignment,” says Brian. “But even though there was a suspicion that the hashish had been put into the ship at Kochi, nothing could be proved. So James could not be apprehended.”
 
Anyway, back in Perth, to overcomes the stress and tensions of the past several months, Brian and Alison wrote a book. This was published as ‘The Cochin Connection -- Two against the drug trade: a true story’ which became a bestseller. Soon, many Hollywood studios expressed an interest in making a film. Five screenplays were written. But Brian was not satisfied by any one. So, no film was made.
 
In the meantime, a qualified Naval architect, Brian concentrated on his career as a trade diplomat in the Australian government. “I worked on two trade missions to Japan to make environmental changes in industry,” he says. Brian also wrote the national policy on water because he was the team leader on the Economic Water Resources Model.
 
Thereafter, tired of dealing with politicians, Brian left the government and started the Lemon Myrtle Farms. “It is an organic farm,” he says. “We have 1.2 million trees. Lemon Myrtle is an Australian native tree. We make oil, tea and food flavouring.”
 
These are exported to Germany, England. Singapore and Malaysia. But after 25 years of running the farm, Brian sold it two years ago. “Now I am retired,” he says. “And I am travelling the world on my yacht and having a good time.”

As for his personal life, he married Allison and divorced her after 10 years. Thereafter, for ten years, he remained single, before he married a Chinese doctor who lives in Australia. Then, in January, this year, he, along with his wife, had gone to the latter’s home in Chengdu, China. She wanted to look after her 87-year-old father who was ailing. That was when Brian got the idea to write the screenplay of 'The Cochin Connection' himself. “It took me two months,” he says.

Brian had come to Kochi to meet Mollywood producers who would be interested in making a film. “It will be a bilingual production, in Malayalam and English,” he says. “Talks are going on.”

Meanwhile, most of the dramatis personae are no longer there. James died of cancer, at the age of 67, in 1987. James’s girlfriend Jyl took his money and bought an apartment in Singapore. “I am told she is living there comfortably,” says Brian.

Maxwell  died in 1985 at the age of 46. “He had been threatened by James and the stress and trauma of the episode may have led to his premature death”, says his Kochi-based uncle Edgar Morris, who is helping Brian in connecting with prospective Mollywood producers. “I remember that whenever I walked with him on the streets, he would constantly look back.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

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