County Durham crime group jailed for 94 years after 'weekend of terror'

  • Watch Kris Jepson's video report from 7 September

A crime group has been jailed for a combined 94 years following a "weekend of terror" which saw a car rammed into a home while children hid inside.

A long-running bitter feud by organised criminals in County Durham exploded into a weekend of violence on 7 and 8 January 2023.  

Seven men have now been jailed for 94 years and seven months following a large scale police investigation, nicknamed Operation Coastal.

  • Group leader James Stephenson was sentenced to 16 years and 9 months in prison.

  • Wayne Griffin got 19 years and 9 months. 

  • Jonathan Miller got 16 years and 9 months.

  • Paul Frain got 14 years.

  • Connor Ellison got 13 years.

  • Shane Leigh got 9 years.

  • Graeme Oliver got 5 years and 4 months. 

Detective Superintendent Andy Reynolds, in charge of Operation Coastal at Durham Constabulary, said: “Incidents like this are very rare in County Durham and Darlington. I hope this investigation sends out a clear message to criminals that we will not tolerate such extreme violence on our streets.”

The trouble began on Saturday 7 January 2023, when a silver Mitsubishi Shogun rammed into a property in Hartlepool and a gang of men, led by Stephenson, smashed up a parked car on the driveway of the house and set fire to it.

As the Shogun rammed into the house four times, leaving structural damage, it endangered four children and a woman who were hiding inside. Following the attack, the group dumped the Shogun and burnt it out.

Two other cars were later located by police who found baseball bats and accelerants inside the vehicles.

The following night, the rival crime group carried out a retaliatory aggravated burglary at a property connected to one member of Stephenson’s crime group in South Crescent, Horden.

Stephenson gathered the rest of his group, they armed up and waited in a property in Seventh Street in Horden, anticipating a further attack.

Shortly after, a stolen transit van began ram raiding two shops owned by Stephenson - a vape shop and tanning salon - on Fifth Street in the village.

The whole attack was caught on CCTV.

Stephenson and his group became aware of the attack and sped off in a second black Mitsubishi Shogun towards the junction of Fifth Street. The van was still ramming into one of the shops when they arrived. Several gun shots were fired from Stephenson’s Shogun towards the transit van and a high speed chase began.

The vehicles were last seen speeding through the Haswell area on CCTV and the second shogun was again found burnt out.

‘Complex investigation’

Durham Constabulary launched a major investigation called Operation Coastal, involving significant digital and forensic evidence.

A 100-strong team of officers gathered evidence to piece together a timeline of events. It led to 14 initial arrests and saw more than 400 hours of CCTV examined, mobile phone data analysed, intelligence gathered from the community and raids carried out.

Inquiries led armed officers to a remote farm nearby, where bullets, including one identical to those fired in Fifth Street, were found.

A bottle of accelerant dropped outside the house in Hartlepool also provided key DNA evidence,

Drugs, including cocaine, heroin and cannabis plants were found during searches of properties, totalling a street value of up to £96,000.

After initially denying the charges and offering 'no comment” in police interviews, they admitted all the offences at Newcastle Crown Court in June.

Advances in forensic technology meant detailed digital data was also uncovered and proved vital.

However, the gun fired during the incident on Sunday, 8 January has never been recovered. 

Detective Superintendent Andy Reynolds added: “Durham Constabulary quickly mobilised a significant level of resources to investigate this offence and being the offenders to justice.

“We will not tolerate this type of behaviour and because of this investigation the seven defendants are now facing lengthy sentences behind bars.

“Given the nature of the crimes they commit, members of organised crime gangs will do what they can to avoid facing punishment, but the overwhelming evidence gathered in this case meant they had no option but to plead guilty to all charges.”

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