Irish granddad is now a suspected drug lord after €100m cocaine find

Michael McDermott
Michael McDermott

THIS is the Waterford grandfather who is alleged to be Ireland’s most unlikely international cocaine trafficker

Qualified architect Michael McDermott looks the picture of innocence as poses for the camera with a female relative in a pub near his home in Cheekpoint, Co. Waterford.

The fishing trawler skipper, now an old-age pensioner, comes from a respected seafaring family who could not be further removed from drug cartels. 

But last Saturday, McDermott (67), made headlines across the globe when he was charged in connection with a €100m cocaine haul found on the Bianca (below), a converted fishing trawler he was captaining off the coast of Falmouth, in Cornwall. 

It was the second major haul McDermott, who also has an address in Dorset, England, has been linked to in recent years. 

Spanish police found €400m worth of cocaine on a boat he owned and which had travelled to Europe from Canada – via Trinidad and Tobago – in 2009. However, although being charged , McDermott was not convicted of an offence. 

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday World, a Canadian seaman who spent more than three years in a Spanish prison after being duped into transporting that €400m cocaine haul (below) said he was glad the Irishman was charged last week.

McDermott was previously investigated after authorities seized the cocaine on board the ship The Destiny Empress off the coast of northern Spain in July 2009. 

Authorities said McDermott was the captain of the boat which had sailed from Canada to Trinidad and Tobago, but was replaced by another skipper before it made its onward journey to the coast of Spain via Antigua. 

McDermott and another Irishman had bought the former Canadian coast guard vessel for €1.8m, claiming they wanted it for “exploration purposes”. 

He was initially due to skipper the ship to Europe, but said he couldn’t make it as he had broken his ribs. 

Canadian crew member Philip Halliday (below), who was recruited by McDermott and spent three years in Spanish prison despite saying he had no idea drugs were on the ship, said he ended up working with the Irishman after a friend introduced the pair.

“I went down and met this guy. He seemed like a good guy. I really liked him. He said he was a fisherman and we got along really well,” he said.

“He was quite a talker and liked a drink. They all seemed like nice guys, but I guess that’s the way they do it. He was supposed to captain the ship from Antigua to Spain. 

“I got down there [to Antigua] and I met this other guy. He told me Mike fell down and broke his ribs so he wasn’t there.”

Halliday said he spoke to McDermott when the vessel arrived near the coast of Spain, shortly before authorities boarded the ship. 

Unbeknownst to McDermott, police had previously found a receipt for works carried out on the boat during a raid on the home of an Albanian gang member who was based in London and were tracking its movements. 

According to those who know him, McDermott is well-travelled and fond of a drink and a story. 

And the truth of how he went from his beginnings in a coastal town in Waterford to allegedly being linked to an international crime cartel almost sounds like a tall tale a fisherman might tell after a few too many drinks. 

However, police allege it is no work of fiction. 

Locals say he originally worked as an architect many years ago, but gave up on that before earning his living on the sea. There are boats in the garden of Maryville House in Cheekpoint where he grew up, but the house lies empty at present after his parents Mary and Bob and brother Brian passed away in recent years.

Brian was jailed for two months in 1986 for fishing offences and it led to hundreds of fishermen marching in Cork in protest.

Another brother was fined, but avoided jail over fishing offences. 

Despite those convictions, there was no hint of criminality in the family. 

“He had been okay before, but he got very into the drink,” said one local who knew him.  The source added that he had got into financial difficulty several years ago, was drinking heavily and had disputes over money with several people. 

“A lot of people would have fallen out with him over this. He wouldn’t be the most popular here now.”

Speaking on Thursday, Philip Halliday said when Spanish police boarded The Destiny Empress, he initially thought they were pirates. 

“They were shooting at the ship, it was scary. They shot the windows out in the wheel house. When they came on board they slammed me on the floor and told me not to look at them.” 

“It must have been half an hour before I found out they were police. I was relieved then. Before that I was wondering if they’d kill me.”

Police in England and Spain arrested the crew of the ship, along with 16 other men. The group included Colombian Richard Smit Pena, the head of an international cartel which was working with British nationals based on the Costa del Sol, and an Albanian organised crime group. 

Philip was taken to hospital suffering from a gall bladder problem and didn’t find out until later that the massive drugs haul was found on board. 

“I knew I was innocent and never believed I’d end up there as long as I did.”

He was convicted at trial, but sentenced to the time he had already served, which was three years and two months. Others got much longer sentences.

McDermott (above) was arrested in Dublin Airport in February 2010 on foot of a European Arrest Warrant, charged with conspiracy to import drugs and money laundering.

U.K. authorities alleged he was part of an organised criminal network, but of the 15 people tried in the case in the U.K. in 2011, he was the only one acquitted. 

Philip said: “ I’ve talked to him once since I got home. A guy who’s writing a book about me went over to see Mike, who called me afterwards. I said: ‘Mike, did you know?’ Of course, he told me he didn’t.”

Richard Smit Pena was sentenced to 12 years for his role. Others received sentences ranging from 10 years and six months down to 1,140 days for Philip, who still maintains his innocence and received a parade in his home town upon his release.  

A friend contacted Philip this week to tell him of McDermott’s arrest. He said if he’s found guilty he won’t be unhappy.

“I feel that’s what he deserves, but I don’t think of him. 

“He’s out of my mind. I don’t hold grudges, but whatever happens to him, well it’s good, so other people can’t be hurt like I was.”