AN influential organised crime group which instilled fear and intimidation into the local community in Warrington has seen its criminal enterprise dismantled.
Twenty men are now behind bars for a total of 185 years after Cheshire Constabulary’s Serious Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) uncovered their dangerous criminality as they supplied cocaine in the North West and used firearms to scare others and protect themselves.
Ringleader Anthony Cullen, aged 31, was today sentenced to 27 years along with his associates at Liverpool Crown Court.
Cullen ran the organised crime group and employed 19 men who flooded the streets with class A drugs.
The criminal gang – described in court as being at or very near “the top of the tree” in the scale of their drug dealing – made large cash profits as they supplied cocaine and cannabis in Warrington, Winsford and Bangor. It is also believed that they had links with the North East.
With their supply of illegal drugs raking in up to £290,000 profit per month, Cullen’s criminal enterprise was “risky and often nasty” as he, along with Chris Houghton, Sean Ryan, Jason Eastens and Michael Mason, began using firearms to protect themselves and intimidate others.
The court heard how during July 2017 Cullen, Houghton, Mason and Eastens attempted to supply a Ruger handgun to a customer in Liverpool for up to £3,000. The Ruger handgun was found by police, wrapped in cling film in a bag at a house in Oxford Street, Warrington just before it was due to be supplied to a customer in Merseyside.
The following day five guns including ammunition were recovered hidden in the loft of an address on Rylands Drive, Warrington. A further gun was found along with two bullets in a wicker basket at the foot of a bed to be immediately available if needed. The prosecution believe the gun in the wicker basket was the replacement for the gun which was recovered in Oxford Street.
They included a functioning AK-series rifle, a pump-action shotgun, automatic pistols and revolvers as well as a silencer to be fitted to one of the automatic handguns. The guns were used to threaten rival drug dealing gangs and scare those who owed money and were also made available for hire, loan or sale to other criminals.
To keep their criminal dealings under the radar, Cullen and the gang dealt with cash only transactions and did not use bank accounts. Instead they made written notes for budgeting and kept a record of who owed them money – known as tick lists. They included details of large transactions, debts and overheads as well as an outline of wages and rent money provided to their associates.
Although they attempted to keep their dealings secret, their ultimate aim was to make money. The organised crime group used multiple phone numbers and handsets while regularly changing numbers to try and evade the police – with Cullen alone using up to 16 different phone numbers.
During an 18-month investigation – codenamed Operation Samurai – the court heard how detectives witnessed Cullen and his associates carrying out their criminal activity by supplying cocaine, cannabis and firearms and couriering large amounts of cash.
Sean Ryan drove to Crewe to instil fear into two dealers who had a drug debt to pay. He intended to threaten them with two bullets, a message often used by criminals as a sign to pay up or risk being seriously hurt. Ryan was later stopped by police, who recovered the two bullets, a knife and a list of addresses of those he intended to threaten in his car. He originally told officers he ‘found the bullets’ while out walking his dog but later claimed that ‘someone’ had thrown them into his van.
Three days after carrying out a drugs transaction in Winsford during January 2017, Cullen’s associate Nigel Gerke was couriering money in his car when he was involved in a collision with two other vehicles. Cullen attempted to call Gerke while officers searched the car and recovered £43,700 from inside a sports bag.
The vehicle also contained a manufactured ‘hide’, a sophisticated compartment often used to conceal or smuggle criminal goods.
The court heard how Winsford became a targeted area for the organised crime group to sell class A drugs – with Anthony McElligott, Steven Wood and Anthony Jones being the main suppliers in Winsford – until a quarter kilo of cocaine was seized in May 2017.
Christopher Potter was arrested while on his way to deliver the drugs which made the gang realise they were under scrutiny. They changed their tactics and methods as their criminal activities were disrupted by the Serious Organised Crime Unit.
The jury saw CCTV footage of Cullen and Houghton buying a safe from B&Q in June 2017 to store 1kg of cocaine at a house on Hunter Avenue in Warrington.
By August 2017 the organised crime group had links to the North East when Matthew Spencer was stopped on the A1 as he travelled back to Cheshire. Officers spotted a large amount of cash behind his seat totalling £104,950.
Detective Chief Inspector Mike Evans said: “Today an influential and established organised crime group – one of the biggest in Cheshire – has been brought to justice after their criminal enterprise was dismantled.
“Their activity centred on wealth, intimidation and instilling fear into the local community. Cullen ruled the roost and gave out orders. He was clever and made sure he was one step removed from his crimes yet dealt with those who got in his way.
“The money they made from drug dealing was huge but it came with many risks and dangers as their attention turned to the use of firearms and ammunition. The cache seizure we recovered is the largest we have ever had in Cheshire. It is rare to recover a gun in our county but to seize six in one address is unheard of.
“The significant sentences handed to Cullen and his associates are not only down to the dedication and commitment from the Serious Organised Crime Unit who led a long, complex investigation but to the local community who came forward with information.”
In total Cheshire Police seized 3 ¼kg of cocaine and £205,680.00 in cash during the investigation. Cullen and his associates are believed to have supplied over 50kg of cocaine across the North West.
DCI Evans added: “The drugs and firearms taken off our streets have made our communities safer and this can only continue if we make disrupting organised crime everybody’s business.
“We cannot do this on our own. People living in the local community are crucial in helping us to combat organised criminality and by working together we can make a real difference by disrupting those who bring fear onto our streets.
“I would ask the public to look out for signs of organised crime and to report any concerns to us. Do you question what someone does for a living? Have you noticed an unexplained increase in wealth? If you have any information please call 101 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.”
Individual sentences were as follows: Anthony Cullen, 31, Colemere Close, Warrington: 27 years. Chris Houghton, 40: 20 years Robert Bibby, aged 28,: 7 years 11 months. Nigel Gerke, aged 49, of Monks Place, Warrington: 10 years.
Christopher Larosa, aged 30, of Dover Road, Warrington: 12 years. Gary White, aged 31, of Stanbridge Close, Warrington: 6 years. Thomas Hill, 30, of Pinewood Avenue, Warrington: 7 years 10 months Jason Eastens, aged 35, of Hall Road, Warrington: 13 years Michael Mason, aged 29: 13 years 8 months Sean Ryan, aged 33, of Aquarium Street, Rhyl: 5 years 2 months. Sami Hajri, aged 22, of Calgarth Road, Warrington: 8 years and 4 months Dylan McGann, aged 22, of Gorsey Lane, Warrington: 5 years 10 months Chris Potter, aged 31, of Southworth Avenue, Warrington,: 4 years 11 months. Scott Quinn, aged 22, of Ireland Street, Warrington: 4 years. Josh Mercer, aged 23, of Sandy Lane West, Warrington: 3 years and 8 months. Liam King, aged 25, of Digmore Close, Kirby: 5 years 4 months. Matthew Spencer, aged 40, of Peasley Close, Warrington: 6 years. Steve Wood, 32: 8 years 6 months. Andrew McElligott, aged 43, Nixon Drive in Winsford: 9 years. Steve Cowell, 31, of Maes Isalaw, Bangor: 6 years 8 months.
Found not guilty were – Leah Klein, aged 37, of Rylands Drive, Warrington, Neil Gill, aged 48, of Bradbury Road in Winsford, Anthony Smith, aged 29, of Richmond Avenue, Warrington, Kurt Brockley, aged 26, of Alder Lane, Warrington.