MEMBERS of a drugs gang who trafficked £1.4million of Class A drugs from Merseyside into Devon and Cornwall have been jailed for a total of 86 years and two months.

The 21 men and women were part of the organised crime group who trafficked cocaine and heroin using 40 supply phone lines over 20 months between 2021 and 2022.

Most of the group were family and friends and operated out of Liverpool, Cheshire, Lancashire and London.

They used a network of trusted locals to distribute the drugs to dealers across Exeter, Exmouth, Torbay and South Devon, North Devon and Cornwall.

Holiday parks, camp sites, Airbnbs and hotels were used as temporary homes for their dealers, including a caravan site on the Lizard.

Falmouth Packet: Cash found during an arrest in ExeterCash found during an arrest in Exeter (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

Some of the key conspirators left the UK to run the operation from Ibiza during the summer months.

The group used sophisticated techniques in attempts to mask their activity including hiring cars and travelling in campervans to blend in with holidaymakers. But the operation was uncovered after officers obtained a phone that showed links to drug lines operating from Liverpool.

The offenders appeared at Exeter Crown Court on 23 and 24 November where they were sentenced for their part in the drugs conspiracy.

Falmouth Packet: Heroin found in a carHeroin found in a car (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Chief Inspector Sam Smoothy, said: “This organised crime group (OCG) has had a profound and negative impact on the communities of Devon and Cornwall.

“They have been brought to justice thanks to exemplary work by the case officer, investigation and prosecution teams.” 

Operation Harbinger

The network was dismantled as part of Operation Harbinger, a complex investigation by Devon & Cornwall Police’s Serious and Organised Crime Team.  

Detectives launched the operation in early 2021 when they identified a group selling Class A drugs in Exeter. They spent months building the picture of how and where the OCG were operating before they moved in and started making arrests.

Officers identified four men based in the North West who had leading roles and were key in orchestrating the activity. They went to considerable lengths to protect their criminal activity and prevent and frustrate the police from discovering and disrupting the full extent of their operation.

During the investigation, police referred to the group as the ‘Burns OCG’.

Detectives made nine interventions during their operation before a day of action where numerous forces arrested members of the group simultaneously.

Falmouth Packet: Benjamin BurnsBenjamin Burns (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

Lead conspirators

Benjamin Burns, 25, was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison. He was found to have controlled a number of the drugs line phones along with his friend Georgie Keating, 24, who was sentenced to 11 years and five months in prison. They were both from Liverpool.

Burns and Keating worked closely with father and son duo, Thomas Keating, 43, from Liverpool, and Christy Keating, 24, from Cheshire, who were jailed for 10 years and 10 years and five months respectively.

They hired vehicles to the cost of around £25,000 for trips which lasted between two and 15 days. While in the South West they would travel around and meet up with other members of the group to help set up new lines and move drugs, cash and phones around.

Spoofer SIM

One of the methods used to protect the gang’s criminal activity was a ‘spoofer’ SIM card. Every time it was used to make a phone call, it displayed a different number on the recipient’s handset and couldn’t be called back, so they had separate numbers for customers to use.

The aim is to make it difficult for the number to be tracked. The group paid £700 for a six-month contract and police found it made five trips to the South West at the same time as some of the key conspirators.

Falmouth Packet: Another stash of Heroin in a carAnother stash of Heroin in a car (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

The gang were meticulous about not crossing contacts and used different phone numbers to communicate among themselves and with their customers.

However, officers found social media messages where they were arranging trips. These included voice notes from Christy Keating to his uncle, James Casey, 45, from Liverpool. In one, he told him they had been ‘booting doors in’ and that that he did not want him to ‘risk getting a 12’ with him – referring to a prison sentence.

Casey was given a two-year suspended sentence.

Facilitator and couriers

Working alongside Casey as a facilitator to the supply was Taylor Burns, 31, from Lancashire. He was jailed for five years and two months for his role which included trips to Torquay with associates.

Christopher Mallen, 65, and his son Kevin, 41, both from Liverpool, were two of the main couriers for the group, making 26 out of the 33 evidenced runs.

Christopher Mallen made his last trip in March 2022 and was arrested in Barnstaple with £25,000-worth of heroin secreted inside the centre console of his car. Police believe the drugs were destined for Torrington and Ilfracombe.

He was sentenced to six years in prison. Over his 18 courier runs, officers found he had been in frequent contact with the four leading conspirators.

Falmouth Packet: Cocaine found in a carCocaine found in a car (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

On his last trip, Kevin Mallen was stopped in June 2022 he was arrested on the M5 entering Devon. In his car was a kilo block of cocaine - with a street value of around £80,000 - hidden in a McDonald’s bag as well as £1,000 in cash. He was sentenced to six years and four months.

Lee Paton, 34, from Liverpool, was the third courier and was stopped along with Thomas Keating on the M5 coming into Devon. Officers found heroin worth £68,600 and 16.5kg of amphetamine with a potential street value of between £80,000 and £160,000 in their car.

Paton was sentenced to three years and 10 months for supplying heroin and amphetamine.

£1.4m haul

In total, based on the seizures made and the number of trips evidenced, police say that 15.4kg of heroin and cocaine worth over £1.4 million was supplied.

Jake Myers, 22, from Liverpool, who was sentenced to three years and six months, was one of the drug suppliers for the group. He was arrested while cuckooing a house in Exeter, with one of the drug line phones and cash profits found in his possession.

Officers found a video on his phone when he was arrested in which he is heard to say it was, ‘just like another trap house, just like another city and some next gang of junkies’.

Jamie Marshall, 22, from London, was the other key supplier and was tracked to South Devon. He was operating the ‘Torbay Drugs Lines’ and had almost £10,000 in cash in a car with him. Marshall was sentenced to six years in prison.

Falmouth Packet: Cash recovered by policeCash recovered by police (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

Money laundering

Assisting the OCG and laundering its money were Maggie Burns, 21, from Liverpool, and, Dannielle Marshall, 27, from London. Both were sisters of other members of the group.

They were caught on CCTV making regular cash deposits once the proceeds of crime had been returned to Liverpool. They were given suspended sentences of 18 months and 12 months respectively.

Devon and Cornwall network

The network was widespread with a well-established supply across Exeter, Exmouth, Torbay and South Devon, North Devon and Cornwall.

Its day-to-day running across the two counties was managed by eight key people.

This included five couriers whose role was to distribute the supply to dealers and then collect the proceeds to return up the line.

They included Demelza Trewartha, 48, from Hayle, who given a two year suspended sentence, Richard Morsley, 43, from Torrington, who was sentenced to four years and six months, alongside John Ward, 54, from Dawlish, who received three years. Morsley made five trips to Liverpool himself to collect drugs and was stopped on his final return trip in May 2022 with £37,000 worth of heroin. 

They would make trips and meet up with each other to exchange cash and drugs along with Adrian Mulcahy, 36, and Dillon Ballard, 28, both from Exmouth, who were both given suspended sentences of two years.

Falmouth Packet: Heroin stored in two jarsHeroin stored in two jars (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

Mulcahy and Ballard were arrested in Camborne after being tracked by covert surveillance officers. Mulcahy had £2,250-worth of heroin in his pocket and messages in his phone which suggested he was setting up a line in Cornwall.

Also from Exmouth was John O’Neill, 54, who played a key role in facilitating the movement of three ‘Exmouth Drug Lines’, to and from Liverpool, which sent out 13,623 messages in just six months selling heroin and cocaine. He was sentenced to five years and six months in prison.

In Teignmouth was Benjamin Hopkins, 45, and his partner Joanna Buchannan, 49, who were producing cannabis at their home.

Buchanan was also assisting the OCG and was given a one year suspended sentence.

Hopkins was given a two-year suspended sentence for acting as a ‘warehouser’. On searching the house officers found nearly £28,000 of cocaine and heroin.

The judge noted to the court that a number of the defendants involved in this case were given suspended sentences due to steps they had taken towards rehabilitation.

Falmouth Packet: Thomas KeatingThomas Keating (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

‘Significant level of harm’

DCI Smoothy said: ““The level of harm inflicted by this group is significant. It included wholesale trafficking of class A and B drugs throughout the length and breadth of our force, the exploitation of vulnerable people, extortion, violent crime, and knife crime. 

“They undermined the law, fostered violence, and posed a threat to the stability of our communities.

“The unseen harm will undoubtedly include an increase in addiction rates, health issues, social disruption, and an economic burden on our communities. They were highly capable placing additional strains on public services.”

DCI Smoothy added: “Officers diligently gathered evidence, worked closely with partner agencies, used sophisticated analysis, creative strategies and maintained an adaptability to counter evolving tactics.

“Through meticulous attention to detail, effective co-ordination and communication, the prosecution team have dismantled a serious criminal network, delivering a hugely complex but successful prosecution.

“They have had a significant impact of drug-related activities within our communities.”

Falmouth Packet: Heroin located during a searchHeroin located during a search (Image: Devon & Cornwall Police)

'Complex case’

Ann Hampshire, of the CPS South West Complex Casework Unit, said: “This was a complex case that resulted in the dismantling of a major organised crime group which arranged the supply of large quantities of heroin, cocaine and amphetamine into Devon and Cornwall from Merseyside.

“Networks such as this are reliant on the use of mobile telephones to communicate and facilitate their supply of drugs to meet the market demand from customers. These communications, along with significant drug and cash seizures, formed a key part of the prosecution’s case.

“The police investigative team and the CPS Complex Casework Unit worked closely together to analyse a huge amount of evidence and build a compelling case which resulted in these convictions. As a result, we were able to demonstrate that this single criminal organisation distributed drugs worth approaching £1.5 million. This level of criminality is reflected in the sentences imposed.

“The trade in illegal drugs blights communities in the South West. The CPS will continue to work with our police partners across the region to disrupt and shut down these illegal networks, bring an end to the harm they cause in our communities, safeguard those whose addresses are taken over and ensure that those involved in this serious criminality are brought to justice.”