Roger and Susan Clarke were well known among the expat community on Spain’s Costa Blanca.
The couple, in their 70s, lived in a whitewashed villa — complete with a roof terrace and turret — in the resort of Guardamar del Segura, south of Alicante.
Outside their home was a tongue-in-cheek nod to their Britishness: the statue of a garden gnome, gifted to Roger by friends on his 70th birthday.
Since arriving in the town, which is popular with retired Britons, Roger and Sue had fully embraced their new life.
He was a member of a golf society at a British-run bistro bar. She attended yoga and spinning classes. The two of them belonged to a wine club and were familiar faces at restaurants in Guardamar. They were typical expats, in other words. Or, so it seemed. However, anyone invited back to their home was surprised to find it was still practically empty.
‘They didn’t have any personal belongings at all, apart from their clothes,’ said one fellow expat. ‘It was very strange. They kept it as if it were a house they might want to leave in a hurry.’
Might there be more than a little truth in that observation? It’s hard not to come to that conclusion given the dramatic events that unfolded on a £3,000-a-head cruise the Clarkes were enjoying.
Their ship, the Marco Polo — en route from the Bahamas to Tilbury, Essex — had just docked in Lisbon when plain-clothes officers from the Policia Judiciaria (Portugal’s serious crimes investigation agency) boarded the boat.
Pictured: The cruise ship Marco Polo, on which the couple were arrested
The Portuguese authorities were acting on information from Britain’s National Crime Agency working in conjunction with Spanish law enforcement.
The subject of the ‘tip off’ was none other than 72-year-old Roger Clarke and his 70-year-old, grey-haired, bespectacled wife Sue; ‘meek and mild mannered’ is how someone described her in Guardamar.
Concealed in their cabin on the Marco Polo were four suitcases with false bottoms containing 9kg (20lb) of cocaine with a street value of £2 million.
In August 2018, a five-strong gang in Leeds were jailed for a total of 61 years after being caught with less cocaine — 7.6kg — which rather puts the stash police say was found in the possession of the pensioners into perspective.
Appearances can be deceptive but surely never more so than in the case of the Clarkes, who were living in sheltered accommodation in Kent shortly before moving to Spain.
In fact, almost everything about them was a lie, it seems.
Roger Clarke told everyone in Guardamar del Segura he used to be a chef, among other things, in a Michelin-starred restaurant and owned two eateries in Benidorm.
He was actually a truck driver from London. It is far from certain Roger and Susan Clarke are even married. Our research has been unable to find any trace of a marriage certificate in this country.
Nor, more intriguingly, has their detention in Lisbon come as a great surprise to those who knew them in the UK.
‘When we heard that a British couple from Spain had been held for drug smuggling Roger’s and Susan’s names immediately came to mind,’ said a former friend. ‘We just thought, they are up to their old tricks again.’
That is because the pair have both been jailed on the continent before.
Pictured: Roger and Susan’s house in the resort of Guardamar del Segura, south of Alicante
They were apprehended in Norway a decade ago after being found with drugs, the friend told us. On that occasion, the pair managed to flee — but were later extradited back to the Scandinavian country, where they were put on trial.
Roger Clarke got five years while his ‘wife’ was given four years; she served the final 12 months in Holloway prison in north London.
How could anyone in Guardamar del Segura possibly have guessed that the elderly couple with a gnome outside their front door were convicted international drug dealers who were about to be arrested again?
Even on the Costa, which has always attracted people with a past to hide, the story of Roger and Susan Clarke stands out.
One British couple who knew them in Guardamar claimed ‘Roger and Sue’ had offered them a free holiday in the Caribbean in return for carrying some bags, but they turned down the ‘dodgy’ offer.
Indeed, the more we find out about the septuagenarians, the more the plot begins to resemble the script of a TV drama.
Let’s start with ‘mild-mannered’ Sue Clarke. She has three children from her first marriage. Susan and her former husband, an actor, had been together for about 25 years when they split up.
She stayed in the marital home in Cheadle, Cheshire, to look after the children who were then in their late teens. Up until that point, she had been a ‘normal, loving mother’ to them, according to those who knew the family in the late Nineties.
Then she met Roger Clarke and she simply ‘abandoned’ them, it is claimed. ‘She just left the children with her husband and walked out on them,’ recalls a colleague at the now defunct holiday airline Air 2000 in Manchester, where Susan worked as a secretary. ‘She had to make a choice and she chose to start a new life with Roger and that did not include the children.
‘The children were in their teens and you can imagine they were very upset. They have had little to do with their mother ever since.
‘From what I have been told there has never been any attempt at a reconciliation on her part. She has remained very distant.’
The colleague said Roger Clarke was a ‘brash cockney’ who was ‘very cocksure’ of himself, and Susan was ‘smitten’ with him.
But was his name really Roger Clarke? Those introduced to him knew him as Roger Button and he is certainly listed under that name at the one-bedroom flat he and Susan first moved into in Whitefield, Manchester.
Given what we now know, you can understand why ‘Roger Button’, who was travelling all over Europe as a truck driver, might have wanted to reinvent himself as Roger Clarke. He and Susan eventually moved South and lived for a number of years in Dorking, Surrey, and Betchworth, not far from Reigate, where they enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle which included, then as now, frequent Caribbean cruises.
Where they got their money, though, was always a mystery.
Until, that is, news filtered through to Britain from Norway about that first arrest and subsequent imprisonment.
The authorities informed Susan’s closest relatives, of course. So her children would have known that the mother who had turned her back on them was languishing in a foreign jail.
On their release from prison, the couple went to live in a ‘retirement’ complex in Orpington, Kent, where they remained from around 2013 and 2016.
Shortly afterwards, they surfaced on the Costa Blanca.
They were popular enough to start with but Roger Clarke’s brashness — and rudeness — began to grate. ‘He’s ordered drinks without saying “hello”, even when the staff tried to get him to be more polite by teaching him how to say it in Spanish,’ said a local. ‘He certainly liked a drink. I’ve seem him have a brandy and beer for breakfast.’
He also acquired a nickname: ‘Mr Bull**** er’ because, depending on who he was talking to, he had been top chef or a paramedic or a member of the SAS.
But one story never changed: he said he still ran a business importing pineapples from the Caribbean to the UK, hence their frequent cruises there.
Plumber Paul Craven and his wife Pauline knew the Clarkes as well as anyone in Guardamar del Segura.
‘I started a job cleaning their villa near where we live part-time and they very quickly befriended us,’ said Pauline, 60, from Bolton, Lancashire. ‘We were flattered when they offered to treat us to a cruise. It was the dream of a lifetime.
‘Roger told me about his business importing pineapples and wanted me on the ship to keep his wife company. They offered to pay for everything.
‘Then they said we should buy some designer suitcases in the Caribbean because we could pick them up cheap and sell them for two or three times the price in Harrods once we got to the UK.
‘I didn’t think anything of it initially, but then they said we would have to put our clothes inside the suitcases.’ When Pauline discovered they didn’t even stock the suitcases in question in Harrods, she and her husband smelt a rat and politely turned down the free cruise.
‘I got asked to stop cleaning their home after that,’ Pauline added.
What a fortuitous decision that turned out to be.
Needless to say, Roger Clarke attracted attention on the cruise he and Susan embarked on with their friends.
Fellow passengers couldn’t help noticing Roger’s habit of pulling out wads of cash from his wallet and how he and Susan were reluctant to pose for holiday photos. When they sailed into St Lucia Roger Clarke went ashore to buy the suitcases which Paul and Pauline Craven would have purchased had they been on the trip.
The same suitcases in which officers from the Policia Judiciaria found the high-grade cocaine.