For almost six years, a former nightclub owner accused of being at the centre of a major drugs ring has lived a quiet life in the sun, out of reach of the long arm of the law.

But now his past is threatening to catch up with him. Julia Breen reports.

LAZING on a sun lounger by his pool in the olive grove-lined hills of Northern Cyprus, suntanned Gary Robb looks the picture of peaceful prosperity. The wealthy 40-year-old, who runs a successful building company in the sunshine isle, is glowing and portly after five years of living the high life with his wife and two children. And his luxury mountain villa and two brand new cars are testament to his extravagant lifestyle.

Northern Cyprus is covered in fine restaurants, friendly beachside bars and is surrounded by aquamarine waters, ensuring a life of pure hedonism for those who make their home there. But it has also become the new "Costa del Crime" following the fall of Spain as a criminal haven.

The sun-warmed beaches are a stark contrast to the prison cell in which Gary Robb's older brother and former business partner, James, is languishing, serving 12 years for serious drugs offences.

Gary Robb, who just seven years ago along with 44-year-old James, was one of the biggest drugs pedlars in the North-East, skipped bail in 1997 and fled to Turkish Cyprus, a sanctuary for those on the run from British law.

The drug barons owned a string of nightclubs across the North-East in the 1990s, including the infamous Colosseum in Stockton, which in 1996 was raided by more than 200 police officers in riot gear. They seized a haul of Ecstasy, amphetamines and cannabis worth £10,000. The notorious rave club, in Norton Road, was closed following the raid.

The brothers, who had peddled illicit substances through their clubs, were arrested and Gary Robb appeared in court on September 23, 1997. By September 24, the day he was due to be tried, he had eluded authorities, skipped bail and fled across Europe to his beach-side safe haven. The Turkish side of the island is not recognised as an independent state by British officials, meaning extradition procedures are impossible.

The BBC's investigative journalist, Paul Kenyon, estimates that 30 to 40 fugitives are in hiding in the tiny state. A Kenyon Confronts programme tonight on BBC1 shows the controversial reporter tracking down four notorious criminals, despite the danger of being arrested on spying charges by the Turkish Cypriot authorities.

Kenyon follows Robb as he goes to a builders' merchants for bathroom suites for his building developments, then confronts him with a catalogue of allegations. Kenyon says: "Robb seems to have a very relaxed lifestyle. He has this brilliant villa with a swimming pool. Generally the community in North Cyprus eat at nice restaurants and drink in relaxed bars overlooking the sea. It is like being on a permanent holiday.

"When we showed Cleveland Police the pictures of Gary Robb when we returned from Cyprus, they didn't recognise him until they realised all the good living had made him quite plump. To be fair to Gary, while we were still undercover, he was always very polite and well mannered - you wouldn't guess he was a criminal."

In the programme, Kenyon "confronts" well-built Robb after posing as a potential client.

"You've been on the run for five years now. Are you going to give yourself up? Have you got anything to say to all those back home? Why don't you go back to England and face trial? We are happy to take you back with us now," says Kenyon, followed by camera crews, as Robb half-runs, half-walks to his white four-wheel drive vehicle and speeds off back to his villa, near the picturesque holiday resort of Kyrenia.

Kenyon later says: "He has to be on his best behaviour over there - he doesn't seem to be involved in anything illegal now - because the authorities would throw him out. But they are perfectly aware they have 30 or 40 British criminals on the run there."

But the former drug baron's future looks uncertain. Cyprus is keen to get EU recognition and there is talk of the island reunifying, which would mean the UK government could start extradition proceedings.

Extradition expert Alun Jones says: "States which have developed the reputation of being safe havens do find in the end that it is not to their advantage. I always advise people that there is no such thing as a safe haven - there is nowhere to go and be safe for the rest of your life."

That is why, according to Kenyon, Gary Robb is now applying for North Cypriot citizenship, which would make extradition procedures more difficult. "He looks as if he is going to succeed," says Kenyon. "It is very complicated, but basically it would make extradition more difficult."

The only restraint hanging over Robb is the knowledge that he can never set foot in Britain again.

Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Wilson, who was in charge of the case until his retirement last month, says: "I think back to the people in Cleveland who had to put up with all the disgrace surrounding the Colosseum nightclub. There is a warrant for Robb's arrest still in existence so I can assure him he is more than welcome to come back."

ROBB, formerly of West Road, Newcastle, has left a trail of destruction behind him in the UK. Not only is his brother serving a big part of his life at Her Majesty's Pleasure, but also, in 1999, businessman Colin Thomas was jailed for two years for making arrangements to send £98,800 to Robb in North Cyprus.

Thomas gave a cheque for £63,000 to Robb's mother, 65-year-old Mavis, who allegedly acted as a mule, taking money over to her son in Cyprus. Thomas later gave her a cheque for £35,000, but then had both cheques stopped. Thomas, of Ormesby Road, Middlesbrough, was convicted of two offences of attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Mavis Robb was also due to stand trial, but, like her son, absconded and is now believed to be with him in Northern Cyprus, although the BBC did not manage to track her down.

Kenyon hopes his investigation will highlight the problem of criminals in so-called safe havens, and put pressure on the authorities to deport them. He says: "A programme like this will undermine their situation because the North Cypriot authorities will eventually have enough of people like this, especially when they try to establish links with other countries and find themselves out of favour.

"I have no doubt that, occasionally Gary Robb does leave North Cyprus and go on holiday, so it would just be a matter of trying to catch him then. But police would have to have very good intelligence to find out exactly when and where he was going on holiday so they could arrest him. It is almost impossible.

"I think it will be a while before Gary Robb is brought to justice, especially if he manages to change his nationality before, and if, Cyprus unifies and joins the EU."

For now, police in Cleveland will not give up in their fight to see justice done. Det Chif Supt Wilson says: "If I could give him a message it would be: Come back Gary, and stand your trial."

*Kenyon Confronts is on BBC1 tonight, at 7.30pm