SIPPING champagne and tucking into a lavish meal in a five-star hotel, he was living a life of luxury.

Smiling happily for the camera with a pretty girl he had just met on the Internet, Arben Lleshi was enjoying the high life without a shadow of concern on his face about what he had just done.

But behind the facade was a calculating killer who had fled Southampton for his native Albania with thousands of pounds in his pocket, stolen from a man he had brutally murdered and whose body he had torched in a car just days earlier.

Today the 27-year-old is starting a life sentence and will spend at least 32 years behind bars after being found guilty of killing Agim Hoxha, a well-off drug dealer who supplied cocaine to the white collar workers of Hampshire.

His friend and neighbour Afrim Lleshi, 36, is also in prison for perverting the course of justice by helping to dispose of Agim’s body.

Both men showed no emotion as jurors returned their unanimous verdicts at Winchester Crown Court.

Jailing Arben, Judge Mr Justice Colin Mackay said it was a pre-planned murder with complete “insult, desecration and lack of respect”

for another human being in burning the body to cover his tracks.

He told him: “Drug dealers have a right to life just like anyone else.”

Sending Afrim to prison for three years and three months, he told the dad-of-one that he believed fear had led him to get involved, adding: “You made a big mistake. You said that more than once to the jury and I believe you felt and feel it.

“He (Arben) bullied you into helping him in getting rid of the body of a man he killed in the flat next to yours.

“ Y o u k n e w A g i m Hoxha had been murdered and knew his was the body you helped carry down the stairs. You knew what was going on was some form of desecration of the dignity of another person.”

It is a result that will delight detectives who have spent the past ten months working hard to solve a complex and difficult murder, involving a body that was unidentifiable, a killer who had fled the UK to a country with no extradition treaty, a victim who was a high end drug dealer who had never crossed their radar, a case of stolen identity that led them on a wild goose chase and a crime scene that could not initially be found.

The hunt to catch Arben took detectives on a journey thousands of miles away, and it was a combination of clever police work and Arben’s own staggering arrogance, believing that he was untouchable, that led to his capture.

It was on Friday, April 13, last year that gambler and drug addict Arben fled to Albania, having bought a return ticket in cash from a branch of Thomas Cook in Southampton.

As a team of more than 100 police officers and staff worked round the clock to try to solve the murder, it became clear that he and his neighbour Afrim were prime suspects.

But although they quickly knew that Agim had been killed before his body was set on fire, police were baffled as to where and how he met his death for almost two weeks until a detective’s in-depth questioning led them to flat 285 Shirley Road.

Inside, despite attempts having been made to clean the scene, they found traces of Agim’s blood, while in an alcove outside was the wrecking bar that was used to deliver a fatal blow to his head.

Afrim was arrested but it was not until a month later, on May 11, that Arben was finally captured in Rome.

He had been intercepted on a flight from Albania back to the UK, arrested in his seat before bemused passengers and didn’t contest extradition proceedings, resulting in him being flown back in handcuffs, flanked by Hampshire officers, to be charged with murder.

Detective Inspector Scott Clarke, leading the investigation, said there was no choice but to send detectives to Rome as they couldn’t be sure Arben would ever come back of his own accord.

He said: “We couldn’t go to Albania, so the only option was to wait until he boarded the flight and then act – however if he had chosen to stay there we would have lost him.

“The flight risk was very strong. If Arben had only got off the plane in Rome he could have potentially disappeared forever.”

Speaking after the case, DI Clarke said he welcomed the verdict and hoped it brought justice for the family of Agim Hoxha.

He said: “It has been an extremely hard and painstaking investigation that has involved a lot of old-fashioned detective work alongside the very latest advances in technology and science.

“Although we may never know the exact motive for Mr Hoxha’s murder we are convinced it was because of his involvement in the drugs trade.

“We knew little about the Albanian community in Hampshire and there was initially a lot of mistrust of the police, but I think we have shown through this investigation that we are determined to take all crime seriously involving people of all nationalities and deliver the best service we can to victims.”

More coverage of the Agim Hoxha murder trial