A DRUG smuggler has been jailed for 16 years for helping to bring a haul of heroin worth more than half-a-million pounds into the UK.

Stephen Tudge, aged 52, of Tennyson Road, Farnworth, worked with two accomplices to sne ak 5.5kg of 100-per-cent pure heroin with a street value of about £582,000 into the country from Belgium. Tudge, along with his two co-conspirators, denied any wrongdoing, but a jury at Sheffield Crown Court found him guilty on Tuesday of one charge of conspiracy to import Class A drugs after a two-week trial.

William Pearson, aged 52, of Goodwood Avenue, Sale, was jailed for 14 years and David Mather, aged 56, of Beech Grove, Salford, was jailed for 18 years, though he did not show up at court.

During the trial, the court heard Tudge, Mather and Pearson were in regular contact with each other before Border Force officers seized the drugs on May 7, 2010.

They would hold talks to plan how to carry out the smuggling attempt. Their scheme was to use a lorry trailer that had been specially adapted to hide the drugs.

The trailer arrived from Zebrugge in Belgium at about 7.30pm on May 6 and was parked in Killingholme, Lincolnshire.

The gang’s plan was for Mather to tell a driver to collect the trailer and deliver it to Warrington.

However, Border Force officers discovered the drugs concealed in 32 parcels hidden in a secret compartment in the lorry.

The driver was arrested and later released when police found he had no knowledge of the smuggling operation. After more than a year of police investigation, Tudge, who studied at Harper Green School as a boy, and Mather were arrested on May 22, 2011, while Pearson was apprehended seven months later.

All three denied knowledge of the operation, but they were charged after giving conflicting accounts of events.

Speaking after the court case, Border Force assistant director Malcolm Bragg said drug smuggling was despicable.

He said: “Our officers prevented a significant amount of heroin from reaching UK streets.

“This was a long and complex investigation into what was a sophisticated smuggling attempt.

“The sentences given to this gang should serve as a warning for others involved in this disgusting trade — we will catch you and you will spend many years in jail.”