Regional supplier of multi-million-pound drugs gang rumbled by selfie on Encro phone

Four men involved in an organised crime group responsible for the supply of substantial amounts of class A drugs have been jailed for almost four decades after being exposed by the takedown of EncroChat.

Manchester Crown Court heard how the gang – spearheaded by Leon Atkinson (41) – had been involved in the transferring of over £9million in just a three-month period between March and June.

Detectives meticulously trawled through thousands of lines of chat sent between four of the group on the encrypted communications network, that was smashed by law enforcement agencies in the summer of 2020 prompting the UK’s largest ever law enforcement operation – codenamed Venetic.

The messages revealed how the men were arranging the purchasing and transporting of multi-kilo quantities of cocaine; with Abdul Ghafar (46) directly involved in transferring four kilograms and at least £6.5million, and distributors Adam Marsden (37) and Nathan Powell (31) sourcing and supplying over 40kilos of class A drugs between them.

Despite the treasure trove of evidence presented to investigators, they still needed to use forensic and cell-site analysis to accurately capture who was responsible for the alias user-handles: ‘Carrothorn’/’Maidenbear’, ‘Mistersmallhead’, ‘Festiveape’, and ‘Shaggyfarmer’.

We recovered an image of Atkinson drinking beer in his garden during the COVID lockdown was sent from his device to a leading member of another drugs gang, which prompting confirmation that he was behind the nicknames ‘Carrothorn’/’Maidenbear’ and thus heading the drug conspiracy.

Also involved in the enterprise was Romiz Ahmed (39) who – despite not having an Encro phone – was convicted of money laundering vast sums of cash on behalf of the gang – which we found totalled at least £1.9million in the three-month window of evidence we were able to recover.

Over the last two days (Monday 9 and Tuesday 10 May) the four of the five men were given prison sentences totalling almost 40 years.

Atkinson, Marsden, and Ghafar all admitted conspiracy to supply class A drugs, and conspiracy to transfer criminal property; they received the following jail terms:

Atkinson, of Brindley Close, Atherton – 15 years; Marsden, of Taunton Avenue, Rochdale – nine years and eight months; Ghafar, of Halifax Road, Nelson – eight years and eight months.

Powell, of Cheney Close, Openshaw, also pleaded guilty to those offences and will be jailed later this week.

Also sentenced was money launderer Ahmed, of Rossall Road, Rochdale, who was ordered to serve six years after a jury found him guilty of conspiracy to transfer criminal property, being concerned in an arrangement which facilitates the acquisition, retention, use or control of criminal property.

Operation Venetic – the nationwide crackdown led by the National Crime Agency (NCA) into the criminal use of EncroChat – is the UK’s biggest ever law enforcement operation.

So far in Greater Manchester, over £2.5million in cash has been seized as well as nearly a dozen firearms, over 1100 rounds of ammunition, over 12 kilos of class A and 25 kilos of class B drugs, and over £300k of assets including luxury jewellery and vehicles.

Well over 200 people have now been detained by GMP since the launch of Operation Venetic by the NCA in July 2020, and more than 150 of those have subsequently been charged for a range of drug, firearms and money laundering offences.

Detective Inspector Roger Smethurst, from our Serious and Organised Crime Group, said: “This was an extremely sophisticated drugs gang that effectively distributed mass quantities of cocaine across the North West; they had no shame in profiting from flooding communities not just with illicit substances but also with the misery, violence and deprivation that comes with it.

“Some of the individuals sentenced here are some of the higher-level organised criminals that operate in Greater Manchester, and again demonstrate the unprecedented damage we – as law enforcement – are being able to inflict on multi-million-pound gangs as a result of EncroChat.

“It is clear no criminal is untouchable, and no unscrupulous individual is safe from detection; organised crime is one of our top priorities at GMP and we continue to do all we can to rid our streets of drugs, gangs and violence that tears communities apart.”

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