By Joshua Robinson –
A West Yorkshire-based organised crime group that trafficked cocaine has been sentenced to a combined 49 years behind bars.
Their prison terms follow a National Crime Agency investigation under Operation Venetic – the UK’s response to the takedown of the encrypted communications platform EncroChat.
Carl O’Flaherty, 38, Paul Shepherd, 45, Clinton Blakey, 38, and Dane Marshall, 42, all from Leeds, were found to be members of the crime group that supplied class A drugs across northwest England.
The investigation began in April 2020 when former professional footballer Shepherd – who played for clubs including Leeds United and Luton Town – was stopped by police while driving in Leeds.
Officers searched the ex-footballer’s car and seized a fist-sized bag of cocaine and an EncroChat handset.
Forensic examination of the EncroChat device revealed messages proving the drugs belonged to O’Flaherty, who had instructed Shepherd to move and store them.
On the day of the arrest, O’Flaherty – the leader of the crime group – sent a message to an associate stating Shepherd had £112,500 which was due to be taken to Liverpool on his behalf.
O’Flaherty ran the drug supply operation from a number of addresses across West Yorkshire.
One such property in Bradford was used as a laboratory in an unsuccessful attempt to extract cocaine from oil, and a second address in Leeds stored and pressed kilo blocks of the drug for onward supply.
At the Leeds property, officers found 13 kilos of amphetamine, large quantities of chemicals used to dilute cocaine and equipment that evidenced 12 kilos of cocaine was repackaged there.
The economics of O’Flaherty’s business model were laid bare on EncroChat – he would purchase three kilos of high purity cocaine for £123,000, dilute the drugs with cheap chemicals and resell four kilos for £150,000.
Drug dealers one step down the supply chain would purchase the cocaine, including Blakey who was one of O’Flaherty’s regular customers.
EncroChat messages uncovered their business relationship, as the pair exchanged photographs of cocaine blocks and discussed pricing.
Blakey would add more cheap ingredients to the blocks of cocaine before selling them on at a profit. He was also found to be involved in supplying cannabis.
Marshall, whose EncroChat username was ‘kingchef-uk’, was employed by O’Flaherty to dilute, press and repackage the cocaine blocks to be ready for distribution – a role often titled ‘chef’.
He also setup a company named ‘Northface Landscaped Ltd’ to launder the cash proceeds of the group’s activity.
Investigators linked all the men to the crime group using EncroChat messaging data acquired after Shepherd’s April 2020 arrest.
O’Flaherty, Blakey and Marshall were then arrested between May and July in 2020.
Blakey failed to appear at court to face charges in October 2020 and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
NCA investigators traced him to Madrid in 2021, where he was arrested by Spanish Police. However he fled again after being given bail in Spain.
He was then arrested in Marbella in May this year following a surveillance operation and returned to the UK on 8th June where he was immediately put into custody.
On the 6th September, at Leeds Crown Court, O’Flaherty was sentenced to 17 years and 10 months imprisonment, Shepherd to nine years and six months, and Marshall to six years and six months. Blakey was sentenced to 12 years, in addition to the remaining three years and six months from a separate drugs conviction.
Nigel Coles, NCA Operations Manager, said: “Our extensive investigation has dismantled a dangerous criminal organisation that supplied large quantities of cocaine, a trade that fuels intimidation and exploitation in the north west and throughout the UK.”
“It was clear from EncroChat messages that O’Flaherty headed up the group and stopped at nothing to line his own pockets. The cocaine he was distributing would have undoubtedly contributed to violence and misery in our communities.”
“At the NCA we are committed to our mission of protecting the public from serious and organised crime, ensuring that hardened criminals such as these men are brought to justice.”