Members of an organised crime group (OCG) responsible for trafficking cocaine with a street value of more than £4 million have been jailed for 46 years and nine months.

The eight men and one woman carried out 20 courier runs over nine months in 2020 from London into Devon before detectives pulled the plug on their operation.

Officers in Devon and Cornwall Police became aware that the group was using an EncroChat platform to coordinate their illicit activity. Over a number of months, officers monitored the online conversations and visits to the Southwest before they carried out a sting to arrest and dismantle the group in October 2020.

The nine gang members were sentenced at Exeter Crown Court over three days for conspiracy to supply cocaine and other linked offences.

The sentences mark the conclusion of Operation Lunched, a two-year investigation that spanned three phases. The operation targeted the trafficking of cocaine and cannabis into Devon with 10 people already having been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison.

Lead conspirators Stacy Howells, 45, of Avon Road, Torquay, and 46-year-old Anthony Carr from Lodge Lane, North Finchley in London were sentenced to 13 years and 10 months, and 10 years and four months respectively after pleading guilty.

They were the coordinators of the operation which brought between 50kg and 60kg of cocaine into Torquay and Exeter. Their time was spent organising the drug runs, arranging the collections, and managing the cash proceeds.

Assisting them were Kevin Leaman, 44, of Glasshouse Lane, Exeter, who was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty, and Adam Hammerton, 45, of Frobisher Road, St Albans, who was sentenced to eight years, after being found guilty at trial.

Detectives monitored the group’s messages online and together with cell site analysis of mobile phones, CCTV and covert surveillance, they built up a picture of the operation being run.

Officers intercepted some of the group’s activity and seized £37,500 in one vehicle stop where a secret compartment was found hidden under fencing within the courier van.

Officers later tracked messages from Carr, which said: “Driver supposed to be back at @3:10 phone off…stressing me out’.

He followed this with another message which said: ‘He’s been nicked mate Exeter Police Station give me abit [sic] mate he’s got a bit of work plotted also just having a sort out.”

The group then continued their business endeavours using trusted couriers who were chiefly responsible for transporting the drugs to Devon and collecting the cash made from previous runs.

They were Kieran Martin, 33, of Gilbert Court, Plymouth who was sentenced to two years and two months, and Jason Tarone, 52, of Canonbury Road, Islington, who was sentenced to two years and seven months after both pleaded guilty. Sixty-year-old Lee

Winter, of Durham Rise, London, was given a suspended sentence of two years after he was found guilty by a jury.

In October 2020, police intercepted a drug exchange in a car park in Marsh Barton, Exeter, where they seized multiple kilos of cocaine and £47,000 in cash.

After arresting the group, officers carried out further searches including at the home of Darren Hardman, 52, and his wife, Waraporn Hardman, 47, in Corfe Crescent, Torquay.

They were found to be acting as warehousers and a large amount of cocaine was found in their address. Darren Hardman was jailed for four years and 10 months. Waraporn Hardman was given a suspended sentence of 10 months and two weeks for allowing

her property to be used in the supply of drugs. They both entered guilty pleas to their roles in the conspiracy.

In Howells’ Torquay home, officers found two safes containing cash hidden in the floor.

The drugs were analysed by experts who concluded that based on the purity of the product and if it was sold in one gram street deals, it could achieve a return in the region of £80,080 per kilo. Based on the quantities of drugs seized and the

number of courier runs carried out by the group, it’s believed they moved between 50 and 60kg.

In total, Operation Lunched seized more than three kilos of cocaine with a street value of nearly £500,000, over seven kilos of cannabis with an estimated street value of over £70,000, two cannabis cultivation sites with an estimated turnover of more than

£15,000 per yield and over £600,000 in cash. Overall, 20 people have been convicted as part of this operation and sentenced to over 70 years in prison.

Specialist financial officers will now seek to recover assets gained from the illicit activities, under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Senior investigating officer, detective chief inspector Sam Smoothy, said: “This case involved exemplary work by the investigation and prosecution team who through meticulous attention to detail and effective co-ordination with partner agencies

dismantled a serious criminal network, delivering a hugely complex but successful prosecution.

“By exploiting evidence from a variety of sources the investigation team cracked the OCG. In particular, evidence from encrypted chat groups identified individuals involved and proved the scale of supply.”

DCI Smoothy continued: “Of concern was the length of time this OCG went under the radar. Police identified that the group used multiple handsets, SIM cards, courier vehicles and hides, to conceal evidence.

“We work tirelessly to disrupt these criminals who bring misery to our communities and urge anyone with information about suspect illegal activity to report it to us.”

Devon and Cornwall Police commissioner Alison Hernandez congratulated the policing team on their efforts.

“The public tell me time and time again that they are fed up with drug dealing and drug use in their communities.

“Not only has this gang been sentenced to a considerable amount of time behind bars but the force has been working with others in the South West, on Operation Scorpion, which has taken more than £7m of drugs out of circulation in the region in the past

two years.

“I’d like to congratulate the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary on this conviction, which sends a strong message that the police are out to get dealers and the South West is no place for drugs.”