Undercover: Operation Julie – the Inside Story by Stephen Bentley
As a historian of LSD culture in Britain (author of Albion Dreaming (2008) and Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia (2015) with a special interest in the people and events which coalesced into what has become known in drug culture shorthand as Operation Julie, Steve was good enough to send me a pre-publication copy of Undercover: Operation Julie – The Inside Story for review.
Llandewi Brefi, situated in the rolling hills of mid Wales, is mainly known as the village featured in the TV comedy show Little Britain. However, it has another, lesser known but much more significant claim to fame. Cast your mind back to those halcyon hippie days of the mid 1970s. At that time mid Wales was permeated by the hippie diaspora from the cities and big towns, looking for a back to the country existence. Communes, tipis and crash pads abounded and I think it would be fair to say it was a psychedelic culture fuelled and often funded by psychedelics drugs, such as cannabis and LSD.
By a combination of luck and intelligence the police had determined that this area of Wales was the source of some of the highest quality LSD the world had ever seen. Moreover, they were certain that between an LSD lab in this area and (later) one believed to be in London, Britain was producing much of the world’s most mind blowing acid. Of course, despite the fact that LSD had harmed relatively few people and in fact had transformed and enriched the lives of tens of thousands of others, the Establishment had outlawed LSD in Britain in 1966 and were doing whatever they could to destroy the counterculture it had helped spawn. Something had to be done. Cosmic psychedelic fun, sensory amazement and personal and spiritual transformation via the miracle drug LSD – this wasn’t the British way and it had to be stopped.
One of the men charged with being part of this Great Repression of Liberty was Stephen Bentley and his book Undercover deals with his role in infiltrating this apparent crime against humanity; the right of an individual to change their consciousness in accordance with their will. Bentley’s story begins with his account of how he began as a young police constable, working his way through the ranks by being an honest hard working cop, refusing to take bribes and dispensing law n’order tempered with good sense. Starting his career on Merseyside and then moving to Hampshire it is clear Bentley had aspirations, and it came as no surprise to me when he later mentioned fabled US cop Serpico as the sort of officer he always wanted to be. Nothing wrong with that, we all need role models in our careers, but it’s evidence Bentley was more than just your average beat cop happy to plod away until pension day.
Opportunity knocked in the spring of 1976 when a fortuitous phone call from Inspector Dick Lee, the police mastermind behind Operation Julie, changed Bentley’s life forever. Within a couple of weeks of Lee’s phone call, Bentley was sat in police HQ in Devizes being briefed about the massive nationwide police unit that was being formed to smash the LSD manufacturing and distribution ring – an initiative called Operation Julie, so named after one of the female police officers on the team.
Bentley was to go undercover, deep undercover, with a colleague. In those old school police days the training for undercover work was all but non-existent and soon Bentley was carrying out surveillance work on Plas Llysyn where the same key LSD people such as Kemp, Bott, Arnaboldi and others were coming and going. The game was afoot, and after a speculative break that proved beyond doubt that LSD had been present at the mansion the Operation Julie team cranked up a gear.
It must take some balls to don what the police believed was hippie garb, organise and memorise a feasible but false back story and rock up in a beat up old van in the hippie enclave of Llandewi Brefi. But that’s exactly what Bentley did next. A briefing from Lee clued the duo up about a character called Smiles (so called because of his seemingly permanent broad grin) who lived in Brefi and who, the police believed, was a key player in the distribution of the LSD being manufactured by Richard Kemp (which in fact he wasn’t, as the acid Smiles was moving was Munro’s made in the London lab, a minor point but a valid one). Smiles, real name Alston Hughes, was clearly quite a character, already known to the police as being a hardcore player in the world of drug dealing, but also a friendly bon viveur who liked the high life in all senses of that term.
So, hair suitably scraggy, distressed clothes on and back story in place, Bentley and sidekick appeared in Llandewi Brefi in June 1976 and almost immediately bumped into Smiles in the local pub. Now, anyone familiar with the Op Julie story will immediately wonder why Bentley was not immediately sussed as being an undercover cop especially when trying to infiltrate someone as worldly wise as Smiles. Bentley believes he did completely fool Smiles. Smiles, on the other hand recently told me this was not the case at all and here’s where Bentley’s narrative starts to become at odds with that of the Julie conspirators themselves. When reading Undercover the reader should bear in mind it is just one perspective of a kaleidoscopic series of events all of which were seen differently by the participants. This is both the mystery of history and the pleasure of reading different accounts of the same events. Smiles, in 2016, told me of his initial meeting with Bentley, “Anyway, these two herberts walk in. Instinctively I knew they were cops and said, ‘what’ll it be officers? Two halves as you’re on duty’” and considers their flustered retorts, the exact words of which he has forgotten, to have confirmed his instinct.
So, right from the off we have Bentley and co believing they have successfully fooled the fun loving criminal and Smiles certain they were Sweeny-lite. By Smiles’ account, even though Bentley was aware of Smiles’ involvement in the local drug scene he never really had anything substantial on Smiles to directly connect him to Kemp’s acid and the wider operation probably prevented them lifting Smiles for just a bit of dope dealing. But equally, why did Smiles just not call Bentley out on being a cop and riding him out of town? Probably for that reason, he knew they didn’t know enough. Smiles was well liked by the locals because he was a solid, reliable guy who was happy to spend his money locally and as much of the mid Wales economy at that time revolved around drugs in some form or another even the locals who ‘knew’, weren’t going to inform. Indeed Smiles claims he was tipped off by a number of them about Bentley’s true occupation. Plus, these situations are not clear cut. Smiles couldn’t afford to make a fuss and as Bentley was essentially benign Smiles hung out with him several times and warmed to him, regarding him as “A good drinking buddy”. The reverse was certainly also true and Bentley’s affection for Smiles is evident throughout the book.
Months of hanging out with Smiles and his chums meant that Bentley soon upped his drinking game to keep up and was also smoking a lot of dope, and snorting the occasional line of coke. To have refused would have completely blown cover but he managed to avoid being put on the spot by taking acid. That’s a pity in some ways because a good dose of Kemp’s acid may have changed the trajectory of Bentley’s time in Wales!
Several chapters of Bentley’s book are devoted to his undercover work on Operation Julie and it’s an exciting tale, well told. But as Smiles noted Bentley didn’t really come up with much in the way of case-breaking intelligence and was successfully kept on the periphery of what was really going on in Kemp’s cottage and where the acid went to after it passed through Smiles’ hands. Bentley’s part in Op Julie was crucial, although the conspirators may argue about just how crucial! The longer Bentley remained undercover and hanging out with Smiles, the more conflicted he became. On the one hand he believed he was doing useful work which would lead to the smashing of one of the world’s most successful LSD manufacturing and distribution rings. But on the other, he was becoming more and more friendly with a man who he would eventually betray and lead to Smiles’ lengthy prison sentence.
Early in 1977 Bentley and Wright were withdrawn from Llandewi Brefi and became part of the preparations for the massive Operation Julie busts in March, the largest co-ordinated drug operation ever seen in Britain. He next meets Smiles in the cells and by Bentley’s account they hugged, Smiles saying “No hard feelings, man”; certainly a measure of Smiles’ character if this took place as described.
At the Operation Julie trials in 1978 Smiles was sent to prison. He did not reveal any information whatsoever that could incriminate others. Bentley went on to have a chequered career in the police in which he was very badly treated. He left and had many other adventures which I don’t have space to detail here, suffice to say he has lived life to the full.
Despite my cavils and the problem of what actually did happen, Undercover is a valuable addition to the canon of Operation Julie literature. Next year sees the anniversary of the busts and hopefully some of the many loose ends will be tied up in the ensuing publicity. The Operation Julie story is vast and labyrinthine and needs to be told from both sides of the story not just from individuals on either side. And there are many, many mysteries still remaining. Just who was Ron Stark? What was the truth behind rumours that a famous gardener scored several thousand trips for Princess Margaret and her Mustique jet set? The identity of this person was well known by the media. Which of the Julie conspirators bought time off their sentence by revealing, after the busts, where Kemp’s stash of crystal acid was? (Under the stove in his cottage.) Do stashes of Operation Julie acid still exist? I know the answer to two of those questions but would have my ass sued if I printed them. These and other mysteries will hopefully be revealed soon.
My personal view is that Smiles, Kemp, Munro and the others were providing a valuable service to a subculture of people who valued and enjoyed their product, and their prison sentences were completely disproportionate to their crime. Steve agrees, to a point I think, but wanted to tell his tale. And therein lies a tale… Bentley has received a great deal of abuse on various internet sites because of his involvement in Julie as an undercover cop and his decision to write his memoir of it. This is pathetic. Both sides, the police and the hippies knew exactly what they were doing, what the laws were and how the game is played. No one forced either side to take on the roles they did. They were all ‘doing their job’ acting out their chosen roles. No body’s right if everybody’s wrong, and if both sides of any event in history are dissuaded from telling their story, how is history ever to be anything but one sided?
As far as I am concerned Undercover represents another piece of the slowly growing Operation Julie jigsaw. We’ve now heard several versions of the police side of the story and one version of the conspirators’ story. What is now needed is a full and definitive account written by one of the major players such as Kemp (that won’t happen as he has moved on) or maybe Smiles himself. Operation Julie was a relatively small part of Smiles’ life and I suspect a full autobiography would be interesting and illuminating. Bentley might even get a film offer, for a film which would certainly rival Mr Nice for being an insight into the murky but fascinating world of hippie drug culture. And I make no bones about the fact I would love to do an Operation Julie conspirators sanctioned history of the events to ensure their story is not lost to death, dementia and lack of recording.
To sum up then. If you are at all interested in British LSD culture, Operation Julie or undercover police work generally, I thoroughly recommend this book. It has its flaws but Bentley’s open and honest views and opinions offset those flaws. Operation Julie is a story that is central to Britain’s psychedelic history and Undercover is central to the telling of that story.