Final members of gang who supplied cocaine and cannabis on 'commercial scale' in Lancashire jailed

A gang who supplied cocaine and cannabis in Lancashire by exploiting vulnerable children have been jailed for a combined total of 90 years.

By Sean Gleaves
Wednesday, 22nd December 2021, 3:36 pm

Residents in Darwen raised concerns about children who were being exploited into supplying drugs after getting into debt last year (2020).

Police launched Operation Florence and found the gang's head, Usman Akhter, controlled a "sophisticated network" which brought hundreds of kilos of cocaine and cannabis into the region.

The Organised Crime Group (OCG) attempted to avoid detection by using the façade of a car sales business - Burnley-based Elite and Prestige.

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Run by Akhter's girlfriend Jessica Humphreys, the business provided vehicles for criminal activity, including moving drugs around and to explain large deposits of cash.

High-level members of the gang also used encrypted mobile phones known as EncroChat which they believed would mask their conversation from the police.

Warrants were executed at 25 addresses as part of the investigation - including properties in Darwen, Blackburn and Northwich in Cheshire - in May and June.

A large quantity of suspected cocaine and cannabis was subsequently recovered alongside a number of vehicles and weapons.

Usman Akhter - leader of East Lancashire OCG (Credit: Lancashire Police)

On Tuesday (December 21), the final five members of the OCG were sentenced at Preston Crown Court:

- Craig Hollings, 48, Sarah Street, Darwen. Guilty to conspiring to supply cocaine and cannabis: Eight years.

- Scott McKenna, 28, Hazel Avenue, Darwen. Guilty to supplying cocaine: Two years and seven months.

- George Lodge, 19, Perry Street, Darwen. Guilty to supplying cocaine: Two years and three months.

- Augustine McDonagh, 33, Bobbin Close, Accrington. Guilty to criminal damage and threats to cause damage by fire: Two years and one month.

- Billy Beeke, 26, Brandwood Street, Darwen. Guilty to supplying cannabis: Community order.

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Det Insp Martin Melvin, from the East Exploitation Team, said: "This OCG thought they could live the high life by exploiting the most vulnerable in society, including children.

"I am pleased all its members have now been dealt with by the courts and the significant total sentence received reflects the seriousness of their criminal actions."

While many of the properties used by the gang in the UK were "modest", Akhter based himself at a villa in Marbella, Spain called 'Los Flamingos'.

Besides Akhter, other main players included Shaheed Virmani who supplied and received large amounts of cannabis and cocaine.

Marbella-based Liam Martyn was also involved in the supply of drugs from Spain to the UK.

Martyn was shot in Marbella in May 2020 and arrested in Plymouth while on the run.

"Op Florence, which was a major operation involving considerable police resources, was launched directly on the back of concerns raised by members of the public," Det Insp Martin Melvin added.

"I would encourage anyone concerned about criminal activity in their area to contact the police, knowing that we will act on that information and take the appropriate action."

The following defendants were sentenced at Preston Crown Court earlier this year:

- Usman Akhter, 37, Sarah Street, Darwen. Conspiracy to supply Cocaine and Cannabis: 13 years

- Shaeed Virmani, 28, Warren Drive, Swinton. Conspiracy to supply Cocaine and Cannabis: 11 years

- Liam Martyn, 27, Barnes Avenue, Dronfield, Derbyshire. Conspiracy to supply Cocaine and Cannabis: Seven years

- Tariq Ajaib, 50, Sarah Street, Darwen. Conspiracy to supply Cannabis: Four years six months

- Ardit Rrahmani, 23, Astbury Chase, Darwen. Conspiracy to supply Cocaine and Cannabis: Six years nine months

- Rory Compton, 31, Ash Grove, Darwen. Conspiracy to supply Cocaine and Cannabis: Six years

- Joseph Ginley, 37, Milking Lane, Darwen. Conspiracy to supply Cocaine: Six years four months

- James Burrows, 23, Plantation Road, Blackburn. Conspiracy to supply Cannabis and being concerned in the supply of Cocaine: 12 months suspended

- Kieran McKenna, 37, Griffin Close, Burnley. Conspiracy to supply Cocaine: Two years suspended

- Ellis Gorman, 28, Cross Barn Walk, Darwen. Possession with intent to supply Cocaine: Four years

- Jessica Humphreys, 22, Domenica Avenue, Darwen. Being concerned in the supply of Cannabis: Community order

- Liam Parker, 28, Atlas Street, Darwen. Possession with intent to supply cocaine and cannabis: Three years and ten months.

- Mark Hopwood, 30, Shepherd’s Close, Ellesmere Port. Conspiracy to import and supply cannabis: Five years

- Michael Ryan Young, 31, Alexandra Mews, Blackburn. Conspiracy to supply cannabis and being concerned in the supply of cocaine: Four years six months

- Samuel Howard, 25, Duckworth Street, Darwen. Conspiracy to produce and supply cannabis: Two years eight months

- Jack Beeke, 28, Church Terrace, Darwen. Conspiracy to produce and supply cannabis: Two years suspended

- Mark Jeal, 37, Pilmuir Road, Blackburn. Conspiracy to supply cannabis: Two years suspended

- Clare Lester, 25, Duckworth Street, Darwen. Allowing premises to be used for the production of cannabis: Community Order.

Anyone with concerns about drug-dealing or any other criminal activity in their area can call police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.

Alternatively, independent charity Crimestoppers can be contacted anonymously on 0800 555 111 or via https://crimestoppers-uk.org/.

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