Seven members of a gang which used drones to airlift £500,000 worth of drugs into prisons have been given jail terms ranging from three to 10 years.
A judge at Birmingham Crown Court – who handed suspended jail terms and a community order to six others involved in the plot – said deterrent sentences were ‘essential’ to help prevent similar offending.
An earlier trial was told drone pilots, drivers and look-outs conspired with prisoners to smuggle drugs into seven jails, including HMP Birmingham and HMP Liverpool.
A total of 11 drones, including some which had crashed, were seized during police inquiries into flights which also targeted HMP Wymott in Lancashire, HMP Hewell, in Worcestershire, HMP Risley in Cheshire, and Oakwood and Featherstone jails in Staffordshire.
Passing sentence on a total of 13 defendants convicted of conspiracy charges, Judge Simon Drew QC said: ‘Each of you falls to be sentenced for your part in conveying controlled drugs, mobile phones and Sim cards into prisons up and down the country.
‘The method you chose to do this was both carefully planned and executed. Each of you played a part in a wider conspiracy which resulted in approximately 100 separate deliveries.
‘This was a sophisticated commercial operation and due to the high value placed on drugs and mobile phones in prisons, designed to make those of you who ran the operation hundreds of thousands of pounds in profit.’
Judge Drew said drug and mobile phone use in prisons had caused heightened levels of violence, an increase in self-harm and deaths, as well as allowing witness intimidation and illegal financial transactions.
The judge told the plotters: ‘I have no doubt each one of you knew exactly what you were getting involved in.’
Gang leader Lee Anslow, who was serving a sentence at HMP Hewell, was found with digital scales and £20,000 worth of cannabis in his cell after police smashed the network.
The 31-year-old smiled at the public gallery after being jailed for 10 years, as the judge described him as ‘effectively one of the key operation directors’ involved in at least 23 drone flights despite being behind bars.
Drone pilot Brandon Smith, 24, from Tipton was jailed for seven years, while 29-year-old Shane Hadlington, from Oldbury, was ordered to serve a 51-month sentence.
Prison inmate Paul Ferguson, 38, was jailed for four years and nine months, while 28-year-old Stefan Rattray, also a serving prisoner, was jailed for four-and-a-half years.
Paul Payne, 33, from Coseley, West Midlands, and Justin Millington, 24, of no fixed address, were given prison terms of 44 months and 40 months respectively.
Millington was arrested outside HMP Hewell in January 2017 with a UAV carrying cannabis worth £3,000, cocaine hydrochloride and synthetic drugs valued at almost £10,000.
Data recorded by the drones showed where and when they had been flown, allowing officers to link prison drops to same-day practice flights carried out near gang members’ homes.
Mobile phone evidence also allowed detectives to piece together contact between conspirators receiving packages inside the jails and those orating drones nearby.
Commenting after the case, Detective Inspector Gareth Williams, of West Midlands Police, said around £110,000 worth of drugs had been recovered from 11 drones.
‘A modest estimate would be potentially £500,000 worth of drugs were flown into prisons.’
Mr Williams said Anslow – the nephew of a drug dealer who escaped from a prison van in 2012 – and other senior members of the gang had regarded themselves as ‘untouchable’ as they orchestrated the drone drops.
The officer said of Anslow: ‘He was the key player in this. Not only was he organising drone flights into the prisons that he was in, he was also speaking to other prisoners, such as Paul Ferguson in HMP Risley, to organise flights there as well.’
Almost 1kg of cannabis and 1.5kg of Spice or Mamba is believed to have been smuggled into jails by the drone gang – much of it hooked through cell windows using sticks.
Drug packages also containing amphetamines, crack cocaine, heroin and steroids were suspended beneath drones with fishing wire during the 14-month plot, detectives said.
DI Williams added: ‘A drone flier, assisted by one or two others, would speak to an inmate on a contraband phone to guide a drone into prison where the attached parcel would be hooked off using sticks.
‘The convictions come on the back of a very complex, detailed investigation and I’d like to praise the tenacity and determination of all our investigators, plus the analyst who interrogated large amounts of phone data, who played a part in this success.’
Birmingham Crown Court was told that a phone alleged to belong to gang leader Lee Anslow sent a text to another conspirator reading: ‘Make sure u got anuff line m8, don’t 4get 2 put a weight 5 feet from the bag.’
Prosecutor Michelle Heeley QC told jurors: ‘That text say the Crown was an instruction on how to weight the fishing line and the bag dangling from the drone.’
Although Anslow denied the phone was his, it was found to have been stationary at HMP Hewell for a month, and had been used to contact his partner 122 times and his brother 77 times within the space of a month.