Life on Mars Part III: The Whispering Squad

Do you remember who said “never give a uniformed job to a man who wants to wear one”? Many a sad case: see a young security guard and spot a failed copper. Some, however, fly, like Icarus.

Detective Chief Inspector Vic Kelaher was a Met man through-and-through. Born in 1930, the son of a detective sergeant, his father’s premature death led to his residence at a police orphanage. At 15-years-of-age he went to work as a clerk at Scotland Yard. After a stint of national service, the young Vic claimed his birthright and joined the Met.

Aloof, bright and a highly individual operator, Kelaher was the youngest man in the Met’s history to be promoted to the rank of DCI when he joined the Drug Squad in May 1968. Based at Scotland Yard’s Serious Crimes Branch (C1), under the nominal umbrella of control of the soon-to-be-disgraced Commander Wally Virgo, DCI Kelaher speared the operations of the Drug Squad. A tragic hero in the making. Good cop, bad cop?

Comprising around twenty men, the fieldwork of the Drug Squad was executed by two teams. One of these cadres, led by Detective Sergeant Norman “Nobby” Pilcher, was known as the “Whispering Squad”: covert activity, self-imposed isolation, secrecy.

Nobby Pilcher built his reputation on targeting musicians such as Donovan, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. Already immortalized as “semolina pilchard” in the Beatles song I am the Walrus, the Whispering Squad went for its biggest scalp in October 1968 when they raided John Lennon’s Marylebone flat.

Sniffer dogs Yogi and Boo-Boo detected cannabis resin. Strange, for Lennon was tipped-off about the impending raid by Daily Mirror journalist Don Shorter. As the flat’s previous tenant had been Jimi Hendrix, Lennon had the premises spotlessly cleaned. The dope was planted, M’Lud. Lennon was fined £150.

Lennon wasn’t the only one. 1969 saw the publication of the first annual report of civil rights group Release, apparently “the Filth” were known to plant drugs on criminals. Perish the thought.

Kelaher, who privately favoured a more liberal approach to softer drugs, wasn’t interested in small-time dealers; those who smoked the occasional joint or dropped an acid tab or two. Welcome to “Swinging London”. Kelaher set out to feel the collars of the cannabis importers and LSD manufacturers. A high-flyer and empire-builder, Kelaher also wished to concentrate UK drug law enforcement within Scotland Yard; an idea his counterparts in Customs and Excise were not too keen on.

The precarious relationship between the Met and Customs was tested further by Kelaher’s influence over Assistant Commissioner (Crime) Peter Brodie, the head of the CID. At Brodie’s behest, the Home Office permitted Met officers to intercept drug smugglers – mainly opportunists – at Heathrow airport. A cynical ploy by the Filth to ratchet-up their arrest rate?

Kelaher’s hand was strengthened further by the Whispering Squad’s relationship with the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The BNDD’s European main European office was based in Paris as Marseilles was a key link in the opium smuggling chain from Turkey to New York. Such were Kelaher’s contacts with the BNDD, all provincial forces were ordered to liaise with the BNDD via Scotland Yard’s Drug Squad.

“Church” and “carrot-crunchers”, traditional enemies of the Met. Their suspicions were soon to be confirmed.

In 1970, the Whispering Squad learned that Ken Lee, a Scouser who’d spent most of his life in the US, arrived in the UK with a gram of LSD worth £450 to sell. Detective Constable Nick Prichard, in mufti, arranged for Lee to sell the acid to BNDD agent John Coleman, under the guise of supplying gear to US troops stationed in West Germany.

Lee detailed agent Coleman a list of his contacts who were in turn arrested. Victory for both the BNDD and the Drug Squad. Lee didn’t too well, he was nicked later for another offence. Bad mistake, he went to Release, then the Home Office. Officials had one word to describe this operation: illegal.

During 1970 the Home Office was also alerted to the practice of “recycling” by the Whispering Squad.

Kevin Healy, a young heroin addict, was recuperating at the Littlemore Hospital, Oxford, when staff discovered that cannabis had been sent to him. The local constabulary were impressed with his knowledge of the London drug scene and called in the Whispering Squad. Meeting DC Prichard at a Leicester Square coffee bar, Healy arranged for the officer to buy 13,152 acid tabs off a dealer. Rendezvousing in South Kensington, the Drug Squad scored one of its biggest single LSD busts.

Already vulnerable, Healy felt let down by the London team. He was now a grass. Despite a £20 payment, he reported to astonished Oxford police officers that he was given 162 tabs (worth £162), by the Whispering Squad. He wanted a bigger cut. Pissed off at his treatment, Release advised him to contact the Sunday Times and Granada’s World in Action team.

Fortunately, for the Whispering Squad, DS Pilcher and DC Prichard spotted the World in Action team trying to film Healy setting a deal up. Three journalists recount:

The response of Scotland Yard when they learned of this was similar to the position of The Times allegations, and was characteristic of the old hierarchy’s defensive attitude in those years. A long drawn-out investigation into the matter seemed more concerned with what charges could be brought against Granada and the Sunday Times for presuming to investigate the police than with evaluating the conduct of the Drug Squad detectives.

Further allegations reached the Home Office that the Whispering Squad allowed certain West Indian pushers in the Notting Hill area a free-hand to operate, so long as they provided bodies with gear. As official payments for these tip-offs were relatively small, Kelaher’s team would give their informants a cut of the haul recovered. In turn, these drugs were sold at a cheaper rate known locally as “police prices”. Recycling.

The Yard could not avoid facing up to the unorthodox behaviour of the Whispering Squad when Customs detained Kelaher on 5 March 1971. Kelaher was observed allowing £5,000 of cannabis delivered at Heathrow to be passed on to an informant, Basil Sands – an American-educated Bahamian with interests in Notting Hill clubs.

Yet Kelaher was neither charged nor suspended from the Met. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Richard Chitty, eager to protect his men in the power struggle between Customs and  the Police “indicated that a prosecution of Kelaher would lead to a further deterioration in the already bad relations between the two institutions.”

Kelaher made a statement to Customs stating that he used his informant to break up an international drug-smuggling operation. A transfer to administrative duties followed, Kelaher’s career was effectively over. Fraud Squad Commander James Crane was appointed to oversee an internal investigation.

5 March 1971 proved to be a turning point for the Whispering Squad. For on that day Kathleen and Janet Salah were arrested by Bulgarian police near the Turkish border. Accompanying the Salahs was 100 kilos of cannabis.

Kathleen and Janet were the English-born wife and daughter of Mohammed Salah, he used to run a clothing business until retirement in 1967. Mohammed’s son and daughter-in-law lived with the family in Stoke Poges.

It was alleged that the Salahs imported £120,000 of cannabis from Lahore in 1970. Jersey police confirmed £100,000 was paid into a bank account.

20 March 1971 was another curiously coincidental day. The date that Kelaher made his statement to Customs, and the date that Pilcher’s team arrested the remaining Salahs at their new homes in Ascot and Langley. The date that precipitated the eventual break-up of the Drug Squad, and the fall of Scotland Yard. Old guard on the defensive.

Little of these events had yet to reach the public eye. Basil Sands, Kelaher’s informant, had yet to have his day in court. Two days prior to start of this trial, Pilcher was given three-days notice to move to Clapham station. That very same day Prichard was promoted to detective sergeant and transferred out of the squad.

What remained of Kelaher’s reputation, and that of his old team, was destroyed when Sands was sentenced to seven years imprisonment on 19 July 1971. Both guilty verdict and sentence showed that neither jury nor judge believed Kelaher’s story about Sands merely being an informant. The following day, Assistant Commissioner Brodie received the Crane report about the activities of the Whispering Squad.

For the first time in the Met’s history, the Yard felt that they had no choice but to invite an external force to investigate the activities of their force. Assistant Chief Constable Harold Prescott of the Lancashire force was appointed to examine the history of the Drug Squad.

Let us not forget the Salahs. Undoubtedly drug dealers, Mohammed received five years imprisonment, his son John a three year stretch, and daughter-in-law Kathy a nine month suspended sentence. Despite this victory for the Met, the Drug Squad’s reputation was tarnished further by revelations in court of irregularities in the official police diaries.

On completion of the Prescott report, completed in March 1972, the findings were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. No case was to be heard. However, the following month witnessed the appointment of Sir Robert Mark as Met Commissioner. He ordered a third inquiry into the allegations raised against Kelaher and his team in the Salah trial. A team of World in Action reporters suggest that “it is scarcely credible that under his predecessor Waldron the matter would have been pursued any further after the negative Prescott findings.”

Forty-three-year-old DCI Vic Kelaher and his former team comprising DS George Prichard (30 years), DC Adam Acworth (30), DC Nigel Lilley (31) and WDC Morag McGibbon (33) were all  suspended on basic pay and charged with perverting the course of justice the following November. All except Kelaher were also charged with perjury. Ex-DS Nobby Pilcher (38) had resigned from the Met and was on the high sea en route to Australia. He was swiftly extradited to stand trial with his old colleagues.

The Drug Squad Six appeared at the Old Bailey on 17 September 1973. Defence counsel managed successfully to challenge the inclusion of 33 prospective jurors, for two-thirds of those listed for service were shown to be named on police files. Unusual for the Yard to be so helpful to the defence. In practice, anyone black, young or with long-hair was automatically excluded.

The case for the Crown was that the Salahs (convictions by now quashed) were sent down after official police records were “doctored and monkeyed around with”. Indeed, an examination of Pilcher’s diary showed that in three specific cases factory machine stitching had been replaced by hand-sewn binding.

Ominously, the former boss of the Whispering Squad, Wally Virgo, gave de facto evidence for the defence: “There been so much trouble over diaries … There’s a saying, ‘If they want to, they can always get you on your diary.'”

All six were found not guilty of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. Pilcher, Prichard and Lilley were, however, found guilty of perjury. Although the jury made clear that they thought the offences minor and recommended leniency, the judge disagreed. Turning to Pilcher, Mr Justice Melford Stevenson intoned:

You poisoned the wells of criminal justice and set about it deliberately. What is equally bad is that you have betrayed your comrades in the Metropolitan Police force, which enjoys the respect of the civilized world – what remains of it – and not the least grave aspect of what you have done is to provide material for the crooks, cranks and do-gooders who unite to attack the police whenever the opportunity offers.

Pilcher received four years imprisonment, though he was released in the summer of 1975, while Prichard and Lilley were sentenced to eighteen months apiece; the latter two serving a year only. As for Kelaher, he spent a one-year-spell at St Thomas’s Hospital for a nervous complaint, being discharged from the Met in April 1974 on an ill-health pension.

Drug Squad, compromised. Flying Squad, dodgy. Obscene Publications Squad, bent. How was new Met Commissioner Sir Robert Mark to reform the CID?


  • Barry Cox, John Shirley and Martin Short, The Fall of Scotland Yard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).
  • James Morton, Bent Coppers (London: Little, Brown, 1993).
  • Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edn., 2000).
  • Alan Travis, “The Night Yogi and Boo-Boo helped Semolina Pilchard Snare a Beatle”, Guardian, 1 August 2005,
  • “Crown says Detectives ‘Doctored’ Records”, The Times, 19 September 1973.
  • “Substitute Pages put in CID Diary, Experts Say”, The Times, 26 September 1973.
  • “Former Drug Squad Chief Cleared by Jury of Conspiracy”, The Times, 15 November 1973.
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