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I Infiltrated a Hippie Commune as an Undercover Cop in the UK's Biggest LSD Bust

What it was like to be one of 800 police officers in 1977 who shut down the country's central acid production ring in a massive coordinated raid.
April 9, 2016, 12:00am

Stephen Bentley, in his hairy hippie disguise

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

In the mid-1970s, officers from 11 different forces were chosen for an ambitious undercover operation aimed at smashing two of the world's most prolific LSD manufacture and distribution networks. Codenamed Operation Julie, it lasted two and a half years, and involved policemen posing as hippies to infiltrate communes in rural Wales where acid was being made and sold as part of a wide-eyed bid to broaden people's minds.

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The undercover op resulted in the seizure of £7.6 million [$10.8 million] worth of acid ($9.3 million in LSD crystals and $1.6 million in tabs) and 120 arrests, and has since been heralded as the event that kick-started the war on drugs in the UK. We got in touch with Stephen Bentley, one of the undercover officers involved in the case, to find out how he got ready for the operation, how he gained the trust of his targets, and more on the psychological effects of having to deceive his targets.

STEP 1: GEARING UP FOR THE CASE

My partner Eric and I discussed our cover story in depth, to make sure we'd be convincing. We decided that we'd say Eric's brother had got into a bit of trouble with the police and disappeared whilst on bail, and that we thought that he was probably hiding out in a mid-Wales hippie commune. This was intended to make it easier for us to infiltrate the residents of these communes. We also bought a battered old transit van, which we planned to use to move things around for the hippies to help gain their trust.

I'm only human, so I was naturally a little bit worried about the risk involved in the operation. I was 28 at the time though, and at that age, you do things that you wouldn't necessarily do in later life. More than anything else, I felt excited to be included.

STEP 2: Doing COKE WITH THE TARGETS

Our main target was a guy called Alston Frederick Hughes, also known as "Smiles." It took us a full six months to fully get in with him, during which time we developed a genuine friendship. I thoroughly enjoyed his company. He was funny, charming, and so charismatic that if he'd have chosen to pursue a career on TV rather than in the drug trade, he would've probably ended up being famous.

We knew that we'd managed to gain Smiles' complete trust when he asked Eric to babysit his kids one night. Smiles was a very smart and cautious character, so we saw that as a major accomplishment. Some of the other targets weren't as difficult to get in with, and accepted us almost straight away.

Our main target was so charismatic that if he'd have chosen a career in TV rather than in the drug trade, he would have probably ended up being famous.

I was never put in a position where I had to take LSD to keep my cover, but the hippies all smoked hash, and I would have stood out like a sore thumb if I hadn't followed suit. Some of them also took cocaine. It actually came out partway through the operation that Smiles was being watched by customs because he was trying to score huge quantities of coke from an American living in west London. I ended up taking both cocaine and hash. It would have taken a very strange individual to mix with Smiles and the rest of the guys without taking any drugs, and could have aroused suspicion.

Before Operation Julie, I'd never taken any drugs apart from prescription medicine. The targets could tolerate huge amounts of cannabis, but it was all new to me, so I was forced to adapt quite quickly. The cocaine that was around then was high-grade stuff, so I had to rapidly get used to that as well.

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My cover only ever came close to being blown once. Smiles' phone was tapped as part of the operation, and at one point, it became clear that a dealer from Hampshire was on his way to pick up a consignment of LSD tabs from him. I had previously busted this dealer, who I'll refer to as "Robert." We were living in a rented cottage a couple of hundred yards away from Smiles' house, and if it wasn't for the phone tap, we could have walked past and been seen—and recognized—by Robert. He was actually one of the most obnoxious characters I've ever met in my life, so I was tempted to make a phone call to get him busted on the way back to Hampshire. He would have probably had at least 1,000 acid tabs with him, which would have landed him with two or three years in prison. Fortunately for him, I was able to resist the temptation.

STEP 3: BASICALLY REGRETTING IT

When I saw Smiles in the cells after he'd been arrested, he gave me a hug and said, "No hard feelings." His words did little to ease my guilt, and I was so upset that I was almost in tears. I ended up going through a period of severe depression as a result.

I often wonder what Smiles is up to nowadays, and think about him a lot. I know that deceit is necessary in an undercover role, but it's still not nice knowing that you've deceived someone you genuinely liked. It's now something that I've got to live with.

What Stephen looks like now

Upon reflection, Operation Julie was a unique, exhilarating experience. It's since been described as representing the death throes of 1960s counterculture, which I agree with to an extent. After the arrest of Smiles and company, more criminal gangs began to see drugs as easy money rather than being motivated by idealism. Saying that, I think many of the main players in the two networks that we infiltrated had also been driven by money, and it would be naïve to think people selling drugs during the hippie era were acting for other reasons other than that, prior to that point. Some genuinely believed that LSD was going to change the world, but even they became more drawn towards the material rewards later on.

You can read more about Operation Julie in Stephen's forthcoming book 'Undercover: Operation Julie—the Inside Story.'

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