Six men, including a 39-year-old from Alderley Edge, have been jailed today (Friday 15th December), for a collective 174 years for their roles in an organised crime group (OCG) responsible for drugs and firearms trafficking which experts claim to be amongst the very highest levels ever encountered by UK law enforcement.
Andrew Cooney of Alderley Edge, who was involved in the supply of drugs and firearms throughout the conspiracy, has been jailed for 27 years.
In a joint investigation between Greater Manchester Police (GMP) and the National Crime Agency (NCA), the gang, who were attempting to expand their criminal network internationally, were taken down when messages from their encrypted mobile phones were infiltrated.
Each of the men jailed today had their own role to play in this criminal enterprise, and their incriminating messages were systematically traced back to them, despite them denying the attribution of the handles below.
- Omar Malik was at the top of the OCG directing where the drugs and firearms needed to be, using the alias 'payyabills'.
- Adrian Gonzalez also known as 'terryf*****gtibbs' played a pivotal role, controlling the stash house in Ancoats, brokering deals between other gangs.
- Conor Sandlan used the handle 'stellarboat' and was also responsible for the stash house and the couriering of drugs, cash, and firearms.
- Daniel Gibbons went by the name of 'humblewaffle. He was initially responsible for the supply of drugs, firearms, and cash. As he became more trusted in the gang, he was used to set up a company which would be the front for importing weapons into the country.
- Daniel Waters, also known as 'obscuretwig' was initially a courier for the gang, later responsible for recruiting further couriers for the OCG.
- Andrew Cooney used the handle 'fernpirate' and was involved in the supply of drugs and firearms throughout the conspiracy.
- Sean Hogan used the handle 'dullhyena' and was involved in the supply of drugs and also purchased a firearm from Cooney during the surveillance period.
The conspiracy began to unravel at the beginning of May 2020, following a referral from the NCA to GMP Serious Organised Crime Group (SOCG). Detectives began a period of surveillance between May and June 2020 which showed the OCG were involved in the supply of industrial volumes of drugs and the sale of firearms – including sub-machine guns, estimated to be in the range of almost £150k.
The stash house, located in Ancoats Marina, was used to store large quantities of class A and B drugs, firearms, ammunition and cash. From here, they'd deliver the commodities to customers across the country.
On Wednesday 22 April 2020, armed police conducted a search of a vehicle in West Yorkshire they believed to be linked to the operation. Police recovered a black handgun, bullets, and large quantities of cash in the drivers footwell. The occupants were arrested on suspicion of possession of a firearm and possession with intent to supply.
Later that evening, Sandlan was arrested at his address in Rochdale. When word of his arrest spread, Gonzalez was seen making numerous desperate attempts to contact Malik with one message saying, "Ted been arrested for firearms." – Ted being a nickname of Sandlan. Further messages detailing their paranoia were recovered, with Gonzalez saying he was going to turn his encrypted phone off "switching this off bro, I'll get on you later they might come here."
Throughout the following day, numerous messages were being sent about Sandlan's arrest, with attempts to cover up and distance people's involvement.
Messages like "Feds can't get in them can they" were being sent, offering police an insight into the minds of the offenders. Thanks to the infiltration of the encrypted communications platform, police were already in and could see everything.
With the gang spooked by Sandlan's arrest, they began to clear out the stash house, working out ways to bank almost £300k cash, and how to move the drugs and firearms.
On Sunday 14 June, the NCA attended an address in the city centre linked to Malik. During a search of his flat, police found a mobile phone that had been stuffed down a seat cushion in an attempt to hide it from police. The mobile device was confirmed to belong to Malik throughout the whole conspiracy period. Police also seized a cardboard box full of cash, drugs, and large quantities of high value jewellery.
On Monday 15 June, police arrested Gibbons and Waters at an address in Reddish, after the duo were spotted carrying large carrier bags into the address. Both men were subsequently arrested, when asked if they had anything in the address Gibbons confessed to having tablets, cocaine, ammunition, and guns hidden in his wardrobe. Police found two sub-machine guns, two self-loading pistols, two magazines containing ammunition, a bag of 1098 rounds of ammunition, cocaine, large quantities of amphetamine found in a freezer, and a suitcase containing £616k cash.
Later that evening, police searched Water's house in Reddish, finding a hand-written account list, cash-counting machines, a vacuum packing machine, and documents for the lease at a warehouse in Stockport for a fake company the gang planned to use as a cover for importing drugs and firearms.
That same evening, officers were conducting enquiries at another apartment in the city centre when they spotted Gonzalez heading down to the underground carpark. Gonzalez was blocked by police as he attempted to leave in his Mercedes, and subsequently arrested. Inside his address police found receipts from high value cash purchases and located a mobile phone that had been hidden underneath artificial grass on a roof terrace.
On Tuesday 16 June, Conor Sandlan was re-arrested by GMP and charged. Later that week, on Friday 19 June, in a joint operation between GMP SOCG and the NCA, Omar Malik was re-arrested and charged.
On Thursday 25 June, officers arrested Hogan at an address Denton. Officers recovered a taser, a vacuum packing machine, large quantities of cash in different currencies, and high value items. Parked on his drive were two porches in which officers discovered quarter of a kilo of cocaine in.
Cooney was also arrested this day at his house in Alderley Edge. During the search of his home, officers recovered luxury watches, phones, and paperwork for an Italian villa. There were also two Porsches on his driveway, in one of the vehicles; officers discovered a quarter of a kilo of cocaine in the boot.
The only defendant to take the stand was Cooney, who categorically denied being linked to the encrypted phone handle and being involved in the conspiracy, despite cell site analysis placing him and the encrypted phone in similar areas at similar times. Cooney maintained it was just bad luck, a string of 'unlucky coincidences.' When questioned who 'fernpirate' could be, he claimed it may be a stranger he often gave lifts to, who required taxi services to visit a vulnerable family member. No one was able to corroborate this selfless act or find this unknown man.
Speaking in court, the firearms expert in the case said: "The evidence I have considered in this case leads me to the opinion that the organised crime group acquired 52 Scorpion machine pistols (in more than one batch) and again, having kept a small number for their own use, by May 2020 had sold at least 48 of these machine pistols to various criminal associates.
"There is evidence to suggest that the Skorpion sub-machine guns were being offered for sale for between approximately £9000 and £15,000 each.
"These quantities of fully automatic firearms with compatible ammunition would put this operation, to my knowledge, among the very highest level of criminal firearm trafficking ever encountered by law enforcement in the UK. "
Following a six-week trial at Minshull Crown Court, the jury found the five defendants:
- Omar Malik (22/01/1985) was found guilty of conspiracy to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life and conspiracy to supply cocaine, MDMA and amphetamine. He has been jailed for 38 years.
- Daniel Gibbons (11/05/1984) was found guilty of conspiracy to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life and conspiracy to supply cocaine and amphetamine. He was found not guilty of conspiracy to supply MDMA. He has been jailed for 28 years.
- Daniel Waters (03/12/1981) was found guilty of conspiracy to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply cocaine, MDMA and amphetamine, two counts of possession of a prohibited firearm and possession of ammunition. He has been jailed for 26 years and five months.
- Andrew Cooney (25/01/1984) was found guilty of conspiracy to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life and conspiracy to supply cocaine. He pleaded guilty to possession with intent to supply cocaine. He was found not guilty of conspiracy to supply MDMA and amphetamine. He has been jailed for 27 years.
- Sean Hogan (12/08/1983) was found guilty of conspiracy to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life and being concerned in the supply of cocaine and ketamine. He pleaded guilty to possession of a prohibited weapon (Taser). He has been jailed for 24 years.
Conor Sandlan pleaded guilty at the commencement of the trial to conspiracy to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life and Conspiracy to supply cocaine, MDMA and amphetamine. He has been sentenced to 30 years and five months.
Adrian Gonzalez pleaded guilty at an earlier court hearing to conspiracy to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life and conspiracy to supply cocaine, MDMA and amphetamine. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Detective Superintendent Joe Harrop, head of Serious Organised Crime at GMP, said: "These were very dangerous men who only cared about making vast amounts of money. They didn't care how lethal their commodities were or the consequences for the communities and innocent people who would be irrevocably affected by this.
"They thought they were untouchable but working with colleagues from the NCA and the CPS North-West Complex Case Unit, we were able to systematically dismantle the group and show them this wasn't the case."
NCA Operations Manager Adrian Barnard said: "These men belonged to a dangerous network of criminals involved in the transfer of firearms and supply of drugs in the north west and across the UK.
"Sandlan was a major figure in this criminal enterprise. The wealth of contacts he used to transfer weapons across the country included criminals subsequently convicted following NCA investigations,
"It is chilling to see the volume of lethal weapons this criminal group moved, and we have seen the devastation that these kind of firearms can cause in the north west recently. However, gun crime in the UK continues to be relatively low compared to mainland Europe, and suppressing their availability to criminals is a priority for the NCA.
"We continue to work with policing partners to pursue the criminals involved in sourcing and supplying illegal firearms, and to remove weapons from circulation."
Alan Richardson, Senior Crown Prosecutor for CPS North West's Complex Casework Unit, said: "This was a highly developed operation and the largest one I have dealt with in my career.
"The dismantling of this operation and the subsequent convictions and sentences are a testament to the hard work of the whole prosecution team, including Greater Manchester Police's serious and organised crime group, the National Crime Agency, CPS North West, and the barristers who prosecuted the case at court, John Elvidge KC and Neil Fryman.
"The men used sophisticated methods to try to evade prosecution including the use of a safe house to store drugs and weapons and the use of Encrophones, to prevent their communications being accessed.
"I would like to thank and praise the professionalism of everyone who has helped to bring these men to justice.
"I hope these convictions and sentences send a strong message to others who are endangering our communities by distributing illicit drugs and weapons, we will prosecute and bring to justice those that operate outside the law."