Gang trafficked cocaine from London to run 'drugs empire' in the South West

Adi Lleshi, Tyler Harrison, Mark Vasija, Steven Evans and John Minchinton were jailed for a combined total of 41 years. Credit: Elizabeth Cook

Five members of an organised crime gang who helped traffic hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of cocaine into the South West have been jailed for a combined total of 41 years.

Adi Lleshi, Mark Vasija, Steven Evans, John Minchinton and Tyler Harrison were part of an organised outfit which saw high-purity drugs delivered from London to dealers in Brixham, Plymouth, Penzance and Bristol.

Some 3kg of the narcotic and £185,000 of cash was seized in a single day in November 2019 when officers swooped on key players following a surveillance operation led by Devon and Cornwall Police.

The five men were put behind bars at Exeter Crown Court today (January 19) - with one other, Michael Williams, due to be sentenced at a later date.

Albanians Lleshi and his brother-in-law Vasija, from Essex, moved cocaine out of the capital to Devon, Cornwall and Bristol.

On screen in the video is Adi Lleshi, and left to right in the courtroom is Tyler Harrison, Mark Vasija, Steven Evans and John Minchinton.

They supplied Minchinton in Torbay; Williams in Bristol; Evans in Penzance; and Harrison in Plymouth, who all shifted the drugs on for sale.

Minchinton, Lleshi, and Williams, were found guilty of conspiracy to supply cocaine following a month-long trial in October.

Vasija, from Essex, Harrison, from Plymouth, and Evans, from Penzance, had all previously admitted the same charge.

Gang had 'drugs empire' in the South West

Senior Investigating Officer Detective Chief Inspector Ben Davies said: “This was a substantial and complex investigation in which large quantities of Class-A drugs destined for the streets of Plymouth, Bristol, Torquay and Penzance were seized.

“The large quantities of criminal money also recovered demonstrated the extent of the drugs empire and foothold in the South West of England.”

How long were each of the men jailed for?

  • Mark Vasija: The 40-year-old, from Buckhurst Hill, in Essex, was jailed for 11 years and two months

  • John Minchinton: The 42-year-old, of Kings Drive in Brixham, was sentenced to nine years and four months in prison. He was also found guilty of obstructing a police officer

  • Steven Evans: The 43-year-old, of Mount Lidden in Penzance, was sentenced to five years and seven months in prison.

  • Tyler Harrison: The 27-year-old, of Torridge Way in Plymouth, was jailed for four years and four months.

  • Adi Lleshi: The 25-year-old, of Buckhurst Hill in Essex, was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison.

  • Michael Williams: The 59-year-old, of Padstow Road in Bristol, is due to be sentenced at a later date.

All must serve at least half of their sentence in prison before being considered for release on licence.

All of the convictions are the result of a large-scale investigation by Devon and Cornwall Police’s serious and organised crime branch, aided by the South West Regional Organised Crime Unit (SW ROCU).

The trial in October heard how Lleshi – an integral part of the supply line - clocked up thousands of miles in his Mercedes driving from Essex to the South West and back again delivering drugs and collecting cash.

Unknown to him, he was being followed by trained surveillance officers.

The gang moved cocaine out of the capital to Devon, Cornwall and Bristol. Credit: Devon and Cornwall Police

He was covertly watched making frequent and fleeting visits to Minchinton’s home in Brixham carrying packages and bags to and from the property.

Jurors were told how Lleshi’s behaviour was the same when he visited Williams in Bristol, Evans in Penzance, and Harrison in Plymouth.

£250k of cocaine and £160k in cash found

When police stopped him outside of Williams’s home on 28 November 2019, they caught him with a bag containing 3kg of cocaine with a street value of £250,000.

Williams was also spotted in the house next-door, where his elderly parents lived, stuffing items into a carrier bag.

Officers recovered a half-kilogram of cocaine and nearly £160,000 in cash in a cupboard under the stairs.

On the same day in Plymouth, police raided Harrison’s flat and discovered a drugs den with dozens of bags of cocaine – worth more than £10,000 – wrapped up ready for onward sale.

There were lists of names, contacts and debts outstanding, as well as more than £1,500 in cash.

The address had been visited by Lleshi, with his familiar shopping bag, and Vasija on November 9 when they made a cocaine delivery.

Officers also raided the Penzance home of Evans on 28 November 2019 and recovered £10,000 of cocaine wrapped, or being prepared for, onward supply in his bedroom along with lists of names, contacts, and outstanding debts.

Some £25,000 in cash was found in a chest of drawers next to his bed.

Police had previously followed Minchinton to the caravan park home of an associate in Chudleigh on 9 October 2019 and raided the property, recovering an ounce of cocaine worth £1,000.

In Brixham, officers had twice raided Minchinton’s home. In July 2019 they seized an expensive, encrypted mobile phone and a set of scales from the kitchen, where traces of cocaine were found on the surfaces.

In November 2019, further traces of cocaine on a spoon and plastic wrappings were discovered.

Officers witnessed Minchinton flushing what was believed to be cocaine down the toilet as they entered the property.

Lleshi, Vasija and Minchinton all had mobile phones with the highest level of encryption.

DCI Davies said: “Sentences handed out today send a clear message to those who feel that they can transport drugs into our communities, set up and sell them."

“Devon and Cornwall Police will continue to pursue these organised crime groups in order to protect the communities they target," he added.

“I would urge any residents to have the confidence to call the police or Crimestoppers to report drug-dealing activity so that we can be made aware and look to stop it as soon as possible.”

Ann Hampshire, senior crown prosecutor in the CPS South West complex casework unit, said: “The case took many months of careful investigation and preparation, as we needed to obtain and review vast amounts of material to build a picture of the criminal network.

"Covid restrictions impacted significantly on the investigation and prosecution of this case, but we were able to demonstrate the individual role that each defendant played in the large-scale county lines drug supply of cocaine from London into the South West.

“This organised crime group ran a substantial business operation distributing many kilos of cocaine into the West Country and generating hundreds of thousands of pounds of income.

"Proceedings continue to confiscate any assets that the defendants may have so that they do not profit from their crimes."