'Abhorrent' Burnley crime gang that used children as drug runners jailed
In early 2019, the East Targeted Crime Unit launched Operation Croatia, which specifically looked at disrupting the activities of the gang members associated with the ‘AK line’.
Preston Crown Court heard how the crime group was headed by brothers Junaid Khan and Zain Khan, who directed street dealers, including children, to sell crack cocaine and heroin on their behalf.
During the 15-month conspiracy, drugs were distributed from Zain Khan’s Burnley home to street dealers, who in turn would bring back cash – at times stuffing bundles through Khan’s letter box.
Next in line in the structures were gang ‘lieutenants’ Mohammed Jabbar and Shohib Safdar, who were responsible for directing dealers where to sell drugs and ensuring they always had a ready supply.
Co-defendants Morgan Ellis, Gemma Jackson, Alan Pickard, Josh Jackson, Tracey Brown and Darren Catlow were either managers or street dealers within the gang.
The gang exploited 12 teenagers, three aged just 14, into selling drugs as part of the conspiracy, which ran from May 2018 to August 2019.
At the behest of the Khans and Jabbar, the children – sometimes still in school uniform - would arrive at an address used by the gang to collect drugs and then be deployed back out to locations elsewhere in the Burnley area in order to conduct drug deals.
The gang was placed under surveillance and all members of the conspiracy were caught engaging in criminal behaviour of some kind across Burnley. On many occasions they were even filmed in the act.
During the course of the investigation, officers arrested countless people connected to the AK Line. When phones were seized, the conspirators would either quickly buy a new handset and register it under the same number or register a new number for the AK Line and then send out a message to customers advertising that they were ‘back in business’.
Significant quantities of heroin, crack cocaine and cash, as well as drug paraphernalia, drug dealer lists and mobile phones were seized from addresses and vehicles connected to the group.
On one occasion officers recovered a silver Mercedes ‘stash car’, parked close to properties associated with the Khans, filled with drugs and money.
On another occasion officers seized a Volkswagen Polo car which was being used to store drugs and found £10,000 in cash, as well as various amounts of crack cocaine and heroin pre-packaged for street deals.
When police arrested an associate of the Khan brothers, both defendants turned up at the scene and began taunting officers.
Junaid Khan said: “I run these blocks and have done since I was about 15,” while Zain Khan said: “Yeah, you know you can’t touch us. Search us, do what you want I don’t carry nothing.”
Zain Khan then said he earned more than the arresting officer in his sleep.
However, Zain Khan was arrested a few months later, on August 22nd, 2019, when officers conducted a series of raids at addresses across Burnley. He was found in possession of what was established to be the ‘AK line’ dealer phone and in excess of £10,000 cash in several packages.
Junaid Khan was arrested on the same day along with Gemma Jackson, at her home address, and a number of mobile phones were seized.
Junaid Khan, 20, of Green Street, Burnley; Zain Khan, 21, of Fraser Street, Burnley; Gemma Jackson, 25, of Ightenhill Park Lane, Burnley; Ellis, 21, of Beech Street, Padiham; and Safdar, 20, of Elm Street, Burnley, all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply heroin and crack cocaine. Jabbar, 22, last of Granville Street, Burnley; Pickard, 49, of Marles Court, Burnley; Catlow, 36, of Nelson Square, Burnley, was found guilty of the same offences.
Joshua Jackson, 20, of Briercliffe Road, Burnley; and Brown, 49, of no fixed address, both pleaded guilty to supplying heroin and crack cocaine.
The Khans were both jailed for 11 and a half years; Jabbar was jailed for nine and a half years; Safdar was jailed for seven and a half years; Jackson and Ellis were each jailed for five and a half years; Catlow was jailed for four years and Pickard was jailed for three years.
Jackson was given a 24 months imprisonment, suspended for two years, while Brown failed to attend court. A warrant has now been issued for her arrest.
All 10 defendants will face a Proceeds of Crime hearing in March 2021.
Judge Simon Medland QC said he accepted expert evidence that at least 20kg of Class A drugs were peddled onto the streets of Burnley with an estimated value of £2million.
Judge Medland added: “It is plain to me on the general facts of this case that the impact of this offending has been both deep and very grave.”
At the conclusion of the trial, officers contacted the local taxi licensing department regarding concerns raised as a result of the investigation. Drivers were reminded of their responsibilities to report criminality and concerns about child criminal exploitation and informed they could face prosecution if they knowingly played an active role in criminal activity.
The child victims are now being safeguarded.
Sgt Andrew Osbaldeston, of the East Targeted Crime Unit, said: “I welcome today’s sentences and they send out a clear message that Lancashire Police will not tolerate organised crime groups operating in our communities and targeting and exploiting the most vulnerable in society.
"What makes this case particularly abhorrent is that the gang not only knew they were using children to pedal their drugs, but they recruited them because of their age and vulnerability and the fact they were easy to exploit.
“The Khan brothers thought they were untouchable and above the law but through dedicated police work and excellent surveillance, we have managed to bring them to justice and take the Ak Line permanently offline.
“We need our communities across Lancashire to continue to alert us to potential drugs activity in their area so that we can investigate and bring organised gangs to justice, as well as safeguarding people, particularly children, who have been exploited and are victims.”
Clive Grunshaw, Lancashire's Police and Crime Commissioner, said: “This is a great example of the excellent work being done by Lancashire officers to keep drugs off our streets and keep vulnerable people safe.
“This operation has led to 10 dangerous criminals who were blighting our streets and exploiting young people facing the justice they deserve. I hope this sends a clear message to those who are getting involved organised crime that the police have the resources, skills and determination to crack organisations like this and bring their members to justice.
“The public should be re-assured that this type of high level investigation work is taking place. While it is not always visible it is happening and achieving real results like those we have seen in court today. I want to pay tribute to the hard work and determination of Lancashire investigators that have helped remove this criminal gang from our streets.”
If you believe drug-dealing activity or child criminal exploitation is occurring in your area call police on 101 or report it online at https://doitonline.lancashire.police.uk. Alternatively, contact Crimestoppers at 0800 555111.