A group of drug dealers have been found guilty of being part of an organised crime group which brought £1.25 million worth of heroin and crack cocaine to Devon and Cornwall.
The gang used a camper van to tour holiday resorts during the summer of 2021 setting up a network of local dealers who were supplied by couriers who made regular trips from Liverpool.
Three members of the gang who were based in Exmouth, Dawlish and Liverpool were convicted by a jury at Exeter Crown Court after a month-long trial. A fourth man was acquitted.
The Liverpool based network involved at least 21 men or women and used the rented camper van, holiday parks, Airbnbs and hotels as bases for their dealers. They used 36 different phones to sell drugs or communicate with each other.
Dealers toured Cornwall in a camper van between August and November 2021, setting up networks or selling directly to addicts in locations including Hayle, Penzance, Camborne, Newlyn and Truro.
Police monitored two different meetings between members of the gang when the camper was parked near Lizard Point.
The Exmouth end of the operation was run by Liverpool-born John O’Neill who made six trips back to Merseyside, met other dealers at the Finlake Holiday park in Chudleigh, and ferried some of them to Polperro.
The Dawlish operation was run by John Ward, who was seen by police surveillance teams picking up drugs that had been dropped off by couriers near his home.
Both men were linked to the conspiracy by a mass of phone evidence which could be tied in to the movement of couriers and other dealers through the location of phone masts and the tracking of cars by number plate recognition camera.
The third man who was found guilty claimed he had only travelled to Devon and Cornwall to meet friends who were on holiday but phone evidence showed he was working closely with them.
John O’Neill, aged 54, of High Street, Exmouth, and John Ward, aged, 54, of East Cliff, Dawlish, and James Casey, 43, of River Bank Walk, Colchester; all denied but were found guilty of conspiracy to supply either heroin and cocaine or both.
Dominic McLoughlin, aged 43, of Chorley Road, Liverpool, was found not guilty and discharged. Another 12 people have admitted the conspiracy and three others have admitted related offences.
Mr Ray Tully, KC, prosecuting, said the operation ran for 18 months from the spring of 2021 and carried on until police broke up the operation in September 2022
He said drugs worth thousands of pounds and £25,000 cash were seized during a series of vehicle stops in Devon, Cornwall, Liverpool and on roads linking the North West to the South West.
The total value of the conspiracy had been estimated at £1.25 by police. There were 22 people charged as a result of the inquiry and they all played different roles within the scheme.
He said it was possible to chart the movements of couriers and dealers by linking data which pinpointed the locations of mobile phones and linking it with information from cameras which record number plates on main roads.
The gang used a ‘spoofing’ phone, which was adapted to try and conceal its location, and a total of 36 phones which were changed frequently to try to ‘throw the police off the scent’.
The dealers operated by sending mass messages to dozens of known drug users offering them drugs and telling them how to place orders. They would then be delivered by runners.
The group used a series of nicknames, including Sonny, so customers knew they were dealing with the same people when the so-called ‘graft’ phone lines were changed.
Giving evidence at the trial, Casey said he was just visiting friends while they were on holiday in Devon and Cornwall and knew nothing about drug dealing.
O’Neill said had been fishing with a friend when he visited Finlake and had been attending family events in Liverpool when he travelled to the North West.
He said a mystery man who he knew as Carl had been running the Exmouth drugs line during their fishing trips together, which was why his personal phone was often at the same location as the drugs phone.
John Ward chose not to give evidence.
Judge Anna Richardson adjourned all sentences until after a further trial, which is scheduled for August.