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Featured Image Credit: SWNS
Police in Greater Manchester successfully captured a drug dealer after he sent a picture of himself enjoying a beer to other gang members.
Detectives sought to identify the leader of the £9 million drug operation, 41-year-old Leon Atkinson, as part of Operation Venetic, an investigation targeting criminals using the encrypted messaging system EncroChat.
Police read through thousands of messages sent by the group, but codenames such as 'Carrothorn’/’Maidenbear’, ‘Mistersmallhead’, ‘Festiveape’, and ‘Shaggyfarmer’ made those involved hard to identify.
200+ suspects have been detained by GMP since the launch of the @NCA_UK's #OpVenetic in July 2020 for a range of suspected drug, firearms & money laundering offences.— Greater Manchester Police (@gmpolice) May 10, 2022
In GM we've seized over £2.5mill cash, 1100 rounds of ammunition, 40kilos of drugs and £300+k of luxury assets. pic.twitter.com/N4Z2UonlYV
A breakthrough in the case came when Atkinson shared an image to the chat, showing himself standing in his garden and enjoying a beer in the sun in the summer of 2020.
A spokesperson for Greater Manchester police explained: “We recovered an image of Atkinson drinking beer in his garden during the COVID lockdown. [It] was sent from his device to a leading member of another drugs gang, which prompted confirmation that he was behind the nicknames ‘Carrothorn’/’Maidenbear’ and thus heading the drug conspiracy."
Thanks to Atkinson's image, detectives were able to establish the real names of five other members of the gang.
One man, 46-year-old Abdul Ghafar, was found to be directly involved in transferring four kilograms of cocaine and at least £6.5m in cash. Two men, Adam Marsden, 37, and Nathan Powell, 31, sourced and supplied over 40 kilos of class A drugs between them, and 39-year-old Romiz Ahmed was convicted of laundering at least £1.9m in cash in the three-month window where police collected evidence.
Four of the five men caught during the raids appeared in court on Monday, 9 May and Tuesday, 10 May, when they were given sentences totalling almost 40 years.
Atkinson, Marsden, and Ghafar all admitted conspiracy to supply class A drugs and conspiracy to transfer criminal property, receiving jail terms ranging between eight and 15 years.
Ahmed was given six years in prison after being found guilty of conspiracy to transfer criminal property and being concerned in an arrangement which facilitates the acquisition, retention, use or control of criminal property.
Detective Inspector Roger Smethurst described the drugs gang as 'extremely sophisticated', explaining they had 'effectively distributed mass quantities of cocaine across the North West.'
He continued: "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,” Smethurt said.
More than 200 people have been detained by Greater Manchester Police since the launch of Operation Venetic by the National Crime Agency in July 2020.