A COCAINE dealer who smuggled millions of pounds of the drug around the UK was caught after sharing a picture of himself drinking beer in his garden during lockdown.

Leon Atkinson, 41, has been jailed for 15 years after police proved he was the head of an organised crime gang.

Atkinson, from Atherton, was caught out after a picture of him drinking beer on a sunny day during the first Covid lockdown in April 2020 led to evidence of his criminal ties being uncovered.

The photo appears innocent, showing Atkinson wearing a red Armani T-shirt, smiling in his garden during the first lockdown.

But it was sent to a leading member of another drugs gang and was discovered after law enforcement teams cracked the encrypted EncroChat network the gang used to message each other, using the nicknames 'Carrothorn'/'Maidenbear', 'Mistersmallhead', 'Festiveape', and 'Shaggyfarmer'.

Crime gang

Manchester Crown Court heard how a gang – spearheaded by Atkinson – had been involved in transferring more than £9million in just a three-month period.

Leon Atkinson

Leon Atkinson

Detectives meticulously trawled through thousands of lines of chat sent between four of the group on the network, which was smashed by law enforcement agencies in the summer of 2020.

The messages revealed how the men were arranging the purchase and transportation of multi-kilogramme quantities of cocaine.

Abdul Ghafar, 46, was directly involved in transferring four kilograms and at least £6.5million, and distributors Adam Marsden, 37, and Nathan Powell, 31, sourcing and supplying more than 40kilos of class A drugs between them.

Despite the treasure trove of evidence presented to investigators, they still needed to use forensic and cell-site analysis to accurately capture who was responsible for the alias user-handles: ‘Carrothorn’/’Maidenbear’, ‘Mistersmallhead’, ‘Festiveape’, and ‘Shaggyfarmer’.

Key to the investigation was an image recovered of Atkinson drinking beer in his garden during the Covid lockdown.

It was sent from his device to a leading member of another drugs gang, which prompting confirmation that he was behind the nicknames and heading the drug conspiracy.

Also involved in the enterprise was Romiz Ahmed, 39, who – despite not having an Encro phone – was convicted of money laundering vast sums of cash on behalf of the gang.

Police found this totalled at least £1.9million in the three-month window.

Four of the five men were this week given prison sentences totalling almost 40 years.

Atkinson, Marsden, and Ghafar all admitted conspiracy to supply class A drugs, and conspiracy to transfer criminal property.

Jail sentences

They received the following jail terms:

Atkinson, of Brindley Close, Atherton – 15 years; Marsden, of Taunton Avenue, Rochdale – nine years and eight months; Ghafar, of Halifax Road, Nelson – eight years and eight months.

Powell, of Cheney Close, Openshaw, also pleaded guilty to those offences and will be jailed later this week.

Also sentenced was money launderer Ahmed, of Rossall Road, Rochdale, who was ordered to serve six years.

A jury found him guilty of conspiracy to transfer criminal property, being concerned in an arrangement which facilitates the acquisition, retention, use or control of criminal property.

No criminal is untouchable

Detective Inspector Roger Smethurst, from our Serious and Organised Crime Group, said: “This was an extremely sophisticated drugs gang that effectively distributed mass quantities of cocaine across the North West; they had no shame in profiting from flooding communities not just with illicit substances but also with the misery, violence and deprivation that comes with it.

“Some of the individuals sentenced here are some of the higher-level organised criminals that operate in Greater Manchester, and again demonstrate the unprecedented damage we – as law enforcement – are being able to inflict on multi-million-pound gangs as a result of EncroChat.

“It is clear no criminal is untouchable, and no unscrupulous individual is safe from detection; organised crime is one of our top priorities at GMP and we continue to do all we can to rid our streets of drugs, gangs and violence that tears communities apart.”

Biggest law enforcement operation

Operation Venetic – the nationwide crackdown led by the National Crime Agency (NCA) into the criminal use of EncroChat – is believed to be the UK's biggest ever law enforcement operation.

So far in Greater Manchester, more than £2.5million in cash has been seized as well as nearly a dozen firearms, over 1100 rounds of ammunition, over 12 kilos of class A and 25 kilos of class B drugs, and over £300k of assets including luxury jewellery and vehicles.

More than 200 people have now been detained by GMP since the launch of Operation Venetic by the NCA in July 2020, and more than 150 of those have subsequently been charged for a range of drug, firearms and money laundering offences.