NINE men who were convicted for their roles in the biggest drugs supply conspiracy ever uncovered in Cumbria have been given jail terms totalling more than 100 years.

At Carlisle Crown Court, after the prosecution described a 15-month conspiracy involving an estimated 300 kilos of cocaine worth £53 million, a judge highlighted how the illicit trade fuels crime, including thefts, robberies, burglaries and even deaths.

The operation involved the importation of huge quantities of the Class A drug, with some of the criminals acting as brokers as they organised the onward sale and supply to crime groups and individual dealers, including in south Cumbria.

It was the dealing of Windermere man Reece Barnes, 31, that triggered an investigation, allowing police to demolish the conspiracy and expose its “Amazon style” level of organisation.

The police investigation - given the codename Operation Matrix - exposed a web of criminal associates linked to international drug cartels, peddling cocaine to organised crime groups and dealers at a cost of £30,000 per kilo.Leigh Journal:

Judge Nicholas Barker handed down a total of just over 106 years jail to the nine offenders before the court.

One of the two men who led the operation, Simon Buller, 45, from Atherton, Manchester has yet to be sentenced for his role in the conspiracy. All but one of the ten-strong group admitted conspiring to supply cocaine.

As he passed sentence, Judge Barker told the defendants: “It’s the daily diet of this court to deal with the outcome of drug dealing and drug use.

“It’s the addiction which ruins lives, destroys relationships, even causes deaths.

“It’s that supply of drugs which drives criminal activity through thefts, robbery, burglary and it often lies in the background of violence and disorder.

“That is why drugs -particularly Class A drugs – are illegal and why dealing in them receives such significant sentences; and why those who do so at large scale can expect to serve very lengthy sentences, which of course will come as no surprise to any of you.”Leigh Journal:

Earlier in the case, prosecutor Tim Evans described how police uncovered a huge network of drug importation and dealing, with key players hiring drivers to transport consignments of high-purity cocaine to locations across Cumbria and the Northwest.

The drugs were also delivered to locations in Wales, the Midlands and Scotland. 

Many of the investigation leads came from contacts recovered from the phone being used by Reece Barnes, the court heard. Judge Barker then outlined the role played by each of the conspirators.

Andrew Stephens, 41, was one of the conspiracy’s two most senior organisers, communicating via WhatsApp with higher level criminals in Dubai to arrange the importation of “significant amounts of cocaine”, estimated to be at least 300 kilos of the drug.

“This was a planned and resourced operation by you,” said the judge, who rejected a defence claim that Stephens,  of Eastfield Drive, Golborne, was acting “on instructions”.

Gualm Ahmed, defending, said that the defendant had organised drivers and transport for the conspiracy but he had played no part in negotiating prices for the drugs that were bought and sold.

Held in high regard by his employer of some years, the defendant had been unable to find work during the covid pandemic and took the option to make “easy money” by becoming involved in the drugs trade – a choice he now bitterly regretted and for which he felt remorse.

Judge Barker jailed Stephens for 20 years.

Stephen Stockall, 63, completed 16 trips during the conspiracy, supplying and estimated eight kilos of cocaine to Reece Barnes, the court heard. He told police that he had been working to pay of an earlier drugs debt of between £50,000 and £100,000.

He had written a letter expressing remorse.

Stockall, of Well Lane, Weaverham, Cheshire, had served a long sentence previously for involvement in importing heroin. His barrister Mark Connor disputed the prosecution claim that he had regularly supplied “one kilo” consignments of cocaine. “He was dealing in grams and ounces,” said the barrister.

While he accepted that he had not received “direct threats” from others in the supply chain, he feared what might happen if he refused to obey the orders of those who were directing him, the court heard.

Nor did the defendant have any influence on the people above him in the conspiracy, added the barrister. Stockall was jailed for 12 years.

Daryll Preston, 36,  of Hamilton Street, Atherton, Manchester, worked with Scott Owen to supply Reece Barnes with cocaine. Judge Barker said Preston’s role was that of a “broker”, putting suppliers in touch with customers, in this case Barnes in Windermere. 

“You were directing and organising selling on a commercial scale,” said Judge Barker.

Preston’s barrister Paul Treble said his client supplied drugs on only six occasions. He was aware of somebody who wanted the drug and he also knew somebody who could meet that demand. “There is no evidence of him living an extravagant lifestyle.”

Preston was jailed for 11 years and six months.

Patrick Harte, for Scott Owen, challenged the prosecution’s comparison of the drugs business to a highly organised “Amazon style” enterprise, saying that oversimplified what happened. Owen’s role had been “relatively limited” and he was not in control of the operation.

Judge Barker jailed Owen, of Salisbury Way, Astley, Manchester, for 14 years and six months. Owen denied wrongdoing and was the only defendant convicted after a trial.

Reece Barnes, 31,  of Elim Grove, Windermere, took on the role of a “regional cocaine dealer,” said Judge Barker.

Operating from March 2022 until February of last year, he is believed to have supplied 14 kilos of cocaine within Cumbria. He ran a commercial dealing operation in the county.

Daniely Murray, for Barnes, said others in the conspiracy had referred to the defendant as “the kid,”  indicating that he had no influence on anybody else in the operation. But Judge Barker said the defendant made 38 deliveries, involving 115 kilos of the drug.

Barnes was jailed for 12 years.

Thomas Whittaker’s barrister told the court that the defendant was a courier, transporting both cash and drugs. “There is genuine remorse,” said barrister Chris Stables. But Judge Barker jailed the defendant, of Brierfield, Digmoor Skelmersdale for 12 years.

The judge commented: “This was high level delivery driving.”

Michael Evans,  36, from Skelmersdale, also took on the role of a trusted courier, transporting 57 kilos of cocaine during 20 trips. He was jailed for six years.

Caine Turner, 32,  from Manchester, and a man of previous good character, completed 17 trips during the conspiracy, delivering an estimated 130 kilos. Before the covid pandemic, he had been a management training scheme, but he lost that opportunity and, in the pandemic, delivered vehicles to NHS trusts.

He was jailed for eight years and eight months.

The barrister for Anthony Warhurst, 58, of Knowsley Street, Leigh, said the defendant worked as a courier for only three weeks. After a fall he was unable to work for the first time in his life. He too was remorseful for his involvement in the conspiracy.

Warhurst was jailed for nine years, eight months.