"County Lines" drug dealing set up leads to criminal trio jailed over their activities in Lancaster
Three drug dealers who crossed the county border to deal street drugs in Lancaster and Morecambe have been given jail sentences - but two remain on the run.
Phillip Dodd, 23, of York Road, Wallasey, Merseyside, Tom Dwyer, 22, of Gorse Crescent, Wallasey, and Liam Christopher Watts, 24, of Lambsickle Lane, Runcorn, Warrington, were found guilty of conspiring to supply heroin and cocaine in Lancaster.
It followed an eight day trial at Preston Crown Court in which jurors were told Watts had orchestrated the operation in north Lancashire in a 'County Lines' scenario - where city-based crime gangs expand their illegal drugs businesses into new, smaller areas where drugs are not as readily available.
Watts was jailed for six years and nine months, while Dwyer and Dodd were given five and a half years.
Judge Philip Parry described their activities as a "wicked trade" bringing misery to those gripped by drug addictions and victims of associated offending.
He added: "There is every need to send a clear message to those who involve themselves in these well thought through conspiracies that such behaviour will simply not be tolerated and deterrent sentences are called for."
Their activities came to light after a terrified drug addict, who Watts had intimidated into letting them use her flat to cut drugs, posed as a concerned neighbour and made a call to police reporting a disturbance at her address.
The woman gave evidence during their trial that Watts, who had previously threatened her with a knife, crossbow and taser, turned up at her home on December 16 with Dodds and Dwyer and told them to start packaging up a bundle of drugs he had.
When police knocked on the door they panicked and hid most of the drugs internally, but threw 23 wraps of cocaine and one of heroin at her to hide, which she later handed to police.
When officers first arrived she told them nothing was going on and a mistake must have been made, and the men left the flat.
But she later took a female officer to one side and told her what had happened.
The fearful woman then left the flat in a taxi, but it was followed by the defendants, who were in a van.
The next day police stopped the van and found Â£500 in Dwyer's possession and Â£125 in Dodd's possession, which the prosecution say is proceeds of drugs. ANPR evidence showed the van going in and out of the Lancaster area.
Dodd and Watts were present for their trial but on June 29 - the day of the verdict - Watts failed to attend and remains at large. Dwyer never attended the trial and is still on the run.
The court was told warrants and wanted posters had been issued across Lancashire and Merseyside for both men, and homes and vehicles have been searched, but all efforts have proved fruitless.
David Traynor, defending Watts, said he had been borderline homeless and sofa surfing and that there was no evidence of an extravagant lifestyle.
Darren Halsted, representing Dwyer, said said he had a limited criminal record and that it would be his first custodial sentence.
Judge Parry said: "I gave the police more time to find the two outstanding defendants.
"I'm satisfied efforts have been made to locate them but they remain at large I'm satisfied each know of their conviction and knows they are to be sentenced today.
"So it was, set against that background of what the witness says was intimidation, these defendants walked into her flat.
"She told the jury she was surprised to see them as she had been abstinent for several months, but was tempted by the offer of class A drugs to use the flat to bag up the drugs they brought with them. Also added to that temptation was the residual fear of previous encounters.
"It was clear they had brought drugs to distribute around the Lancaster area from Merseyside."
Proceedings will take place under the Proceeds of Crime Act on December 14.
When an organised crime group or urban gang from an area such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, or West Yorkshire extends their drug dealing operation into other counties it's often referred to as 'county lines' - ‘line’ referring to the mobile phone drug lines criminals market to sell their drugs.
Gangs need people to transport drugs and cash and often exploit children and vulnerable adults to do so. Drug runners are effectively groomed with money, gifts like designer clothes and trainers, status, perceived friendship, or protection in return for completing tasks, but the gifts soon turn into threats of what will happen if they don’t complete a task.
Children as young as 10 have been made to travel many miles away from home to coastal towns and rural locations to deliver Class A drugs, collect cash, and even carry out enforcement for the gang.
Travelling to areas where they are not known by the authorities allows them to fly under the radar for longer, carrying the risk on behalf of senior gang members.