Drone gang to be sentenced for drugs supply into jails

Credit: PA

A criminal gang will be sentenced for their part in a "sophisticated" operation using drones to supply and fly drugs into jails across the country, including two in the North West.

The gang, including some already serving prisoners, were responsible for 49 drone drops and four throw-overs of contraband including mainly psychoactive substances with a total prison value of up to £370,000.

There were flights recorded almost daily into jails including HMP Risley in Cheshire, HMP Liverpool, Hewell and Featherstone, HMP Birmingham, HMP Doncaster, HMP Lindholme in Yorkshire, and as far north as HMP Perth in Scotland.

Members of the group face sentence at Birmingham Crown Court over two days, after making admissions or having been convicted of their roles

Prosecutors said the "commercial operation" ran for two years, from mid-2015, in which "mainly" drugs, but also tools, phones and even a TV Freeview box, were delivered to order.

The gang used the remote-controlled drones, equipped with a fishing line and hooks, to fly to cell windows where inmates - in contact with the pilot - used tools such as an extendable broom handle to retrieve the goods.

Jail CCTV showed other prisoners then visiting the cells and walking out with packages, believed to be their illicit orders.

Of the drone flights, 34 evaded security and got through and the true total value of the goods is therefore unknown.

On the outside, payment was taken for contraband through the accounts of "leading" player and serving prisoner Craig Hickinbottom's girlfriend.

Police found references to cash sums in accounts linked to Hickinbottom's 32-year-old partner Lisa Hodgetts, from Tividale, West Midlands. She admitted money laundering.

Evidence showed records of different prisoners' orders were kept by using the pennies column of each individual payment as a reference to a prison inmate's cell number - for example "37p", in reference to cell 37.

Hickinbottom, 35, who was a prisoner at HMP Featherstone in Staffordshire, and later HMP Hewell in Worcestershire, organised deliveries to both jails during the conspiracy.

He admitted four counts of conspiring to bring contraband into prison, and conspiracy to supply psychoactive substances.

Opening the Crown's case on Tuesday, Michelle Heeley QC said:

Drone pilot Mervyn Foster, of High Street, Tipton, West Midlands, was described by the prosecution as the conspiracy's "prime organiser on the outside", and Hickinbottom's "counterpart".

The 36-year-old, who was a petty criminal with 31 convictions for 76 offences, worked with "right-hand man" John Quinn, 35, of Swancroft Road, Tipton.

Quinn admitted three counts of conspiracy and another of conspiring to supply psychoactive substances.

Foster had others assist with packaging and transport: Terry Leach, 19, of Wednesbury Oak Road, Tipton; Ashley Rollinson, 21, of Waiver Road, Brierley Hill; Yvonne Hay, 41, and her boyfriend Francis Ward, both of Bloxwich Road, Walsall.

All four will be sentenced for their roles in the conspiracy.

Foster obtained some of the drugs he sent in from 30-year-old Artaf Hussain, of Slater Road, Tipton, who pleaded guilty to being concerned with the supply of cocaine.

On the inside, Craig Hickinbottom was assisted with distribution in jail by cousin and co-conspirator John Hickinbottom, 50, who acted as "warehouse man", his barrister said, and was paid in heroin.

Hickinbottom's cellmate Sanjay Patel, 37, of Telford, Shropshire, but formerly of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, used one of the illegal mobile phones which had been flown in - an offence he has admitted.

Sentencing concludes on Wednesday.