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London Calling

British national sentenced in Baltimore for trans-Atlantic drug deal

Photo: ALEX FINE, License: N/A

ALEX FINE


A British ex-con was sentenced to 78 months in prison—quite a bit below the 120-month mandatory minimum—for scheming to export cocaine from Baltimore to London.

“We spent a lot of time negotiating with the government,” said Kenneth Ravenell, one of Mehtab Khan’s lawyers, before the March 31 hearing in federal District Court in Baltimore. “Hopefully he’ll be returning home to England very soon.”

Khan was one of two British nationals arrested in May 2009 and charged with money laundering and conspiracy in an alleged 100-kilo cocaine buy. The sellers were Baltimore-based law enforcers working undercover. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Romano, who prosecuted the case, said the lead agencies were Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI. Khan pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy.

Reading from a statement of facts, Romano said a confidential source was arrested in September 2007 in an unrelated case, and shortly thereafter told law enforcement officials that a man named Sarfraz Patel, from England, was looking for a Baltimore connection from which to buy cocaine.

The informant introduced Patel to a drug dealer he knew, but the dealer thought Patel was a cop and declined to deal with him, according to an account of Khan’s extradition hearing in London’s Guardian newspaper.

The informant then introduced Patel to undercover agents pretending to be drug dealers. “Mr. Patel indicated that he had a friend . . . who was interested in purchasing kilogram quantities,” Romano told the court. Beginning in December 2008, the undercover agents proceeded to negotiate a bizarre transaction in which Patel and Khan allegedly agreed to pay up to 32,000 British pounds per kilo of cocaine delivered to London.

The price—more than $50,000—was about twice the going wholesale rate for cocaine in London, a witness for Khan in his London extradition hearing said, according to the Guardian story. Patel refinanced his house to raise funds for the drug deal, the paper reported.

The British would-be drug barons conducted much of their business over the phone, duly recorded by their law enforcement counterparties in Baltimore. The original informant recorded much of the in-person negotiations with a body wire. In February 2009, the co-defendants wired money to Baltimore to fly an undercover law enforcer, posing as a drug dealer, to London.

After the meeting, the men made two separate wire transfers totaling $54,000 as a down payment on what they were told was 22 kilograms of cocaine. Later, ICE officials moved to seize up to 3.2 million pounds sterling from Patel’s and Khan’s bank accounts at National Westminster Bank, claiming that “because Khan and Patel initially agreed to purchase 100 kilograms of cocaine, after being exported from the United States to the United Kingdom at a purchase price of £32,000 each, British Pounds Sterling, the total amount of the purchase price of the drugs would have been £3,200,000 British Pounds Sterling.”

In his plea agreement, Khan agreed to forfeit the $63,947.70 he and Patel had already sent federal agents.

According to Romano, who prosecuted the case, police agencies froze bank accounts and seized valuables on both sides of the Atlantic. “The jewelry was seized here,” he said after Khan’s sentencing. The cars were seized by British authorities. The decision about whether they will be forfeited is up to the various law enforcement agencies, who often recycle seized vehicles into undercover operations. Khan’s British-registered cars would be of little use here, Romano said: “They’re all right-hand drive.”

Ravenell said after the hearing that his client had little money even at the start of the caper. “All the money really came from the co-defendant,” he said. “The house refinancing. Imagine that, refinancing your house to buy coke.”

Patel and Khan have been jailed since May 2009, when Khan was arrested in London and Patel was arrested in Baltimore. Court records indicate that Patel had a sentencing scheduled—and postponed—last summer, though he had not changed his plea from not guilty nor been to trial. Ravenell said he thought Patel pleaded guilty long ago. Patel’s lawyer e-mailed a reporter that he “cannot provide any information” about Patel’s disposition.

Clad in a red jumpsuit, clean shaven with his dark hair short, Khan spoke in a high-pitched English lilt. The 37-year-old said he had been to college. He answered Judge William D. Quarles’ questions with a respectful “Yes, sir,” “I am, sir,” and “That’s right.” Following the advice of his lawyer, he did not speak on his own behalf before he was led away in handcuffs after the hearing.

Khan has already served seven years in prison for a tax fraud scheme in which he allegedly held back value-added taxes owed to the government, netting himself about $10 million, which he spent on fancy cars, trips to Dubai resorts, and other exotica. In a 2003 story about a government crackdown on tax cheats, the British tabloid The Sun ran a photograph of a young man in sunglasses, whom they identified as Khan, holding a pet tiger cub.

Because Khan’s previous conviction was not a drug case, it was not held against him in this case, Ravenell said. Even so, sentencing guidelines called for a 10-year mandatory minimum, and with various adjustments, Khan was facing 87 months. Romano explained to Quarles that the state agreed to the “slight variance” in the sentence because there were no actual drugs involved and because “many witnesses that the government would call are from overseas,” an expensive proposition. “We don’t believe he needs rehabilitation as he is an educated person, which is somewhat an aggravating as well as a mitigating factor.”

Quarles ratified the sentence “particularly as it relates to the various savings that the government realizes.”

More savings may be forthcoming: Khan will request a transfer to Great Britain to serve his time near his family, Ravenell said, “since he has no family here in the U.S.”

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