A major organised crime gang that used drones to smuggle drugs, weapons and mobile phones with an estimated value of up to £1.2 million into prisons across the UK has been smashed following a two-year probe by prison intelligence officers and the police service.
Ringleader Craig Hickinbottom co-ordinated a gang of ten others from his prison cell to carry out 49 drone flights into a number of establishments, with some flights carrying individual payloads worth as much as £85,000 behind bars. A meticulous investigation that involved the analysis of drone and mobile phone data of the defendants – alongside the use of covert cameras to capture them piloting drones outside a prison – led to the criminal empire being dismantled.
The eleven gang members have now been handed sentences totalling over 32 years by the presiding Judge at Birmingham Crown Court after either admitting to or being found guilty of a range of offences.
Prisons around the West Midlands were repeatedly targeted as part of the drugs conspiracy, but analysis of drones used by the gang identified drops at prisons across the country and in Scotland between July 2015 and November last year. Stolen cars were used to transport contraband as close to prisons as possible before members of the gang loaded up drones and flew them to specific cell windows for distribution on the inside.
Prisons minister Sam Gyimah said: “It’s clear this gang ran a nationwide drugs operation, using sophisticated technology to transport substances into our prisons and heap misery on to the offenders they had in their clutches. We’ve invested significant resources into boosting our prison intelligence units, and I’m delighted that their meticulous work – operating jointly with colleagues from law enforcement agencies – is having such a positive impact. Criminals who involve themselves in this type of behaviour should be left in no doubt that we’re continuously developing our means of investigation and will stop at nothing to bring them to justice. This case is clear evidence of the desire our staff have to win the war on drugs in prisons.”
DC Andy Farmer, investigating officer from West Mercia Police, added: “This was a painstaking and complicated investigation undertaken by a small and dedicated team of detectives from West Mercia Police assisted by the Regional Organised Crime Unit. The prison system should be a safe environment for people to live and work in and a place of reform. This type of activity jeopardises the good order of prisons and leads to difficult working environments for staff. The defendants in this case are responsible for the large-scale supply of prohibited items into prisons, including drugs, weapons, mobile phones and tools which could be used to facilitate an escape or to conceal illicit items. The sentences handed down reflect the serious nature of the offending by this group and should serve as a deterrent to anyone considering embarking on a similar venture.”
Timeline for the investigation
The joint Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and West Mercia Police investigation began back in July 2015, when police officers saw a package being thrown from a car towards a gate at the rear of HMP Hewell in Worcestershire.
Over the next 16 months, prison and police officers intercepted 15 drone drops linked to the gang from prisons across the West Midlands, including HMP Hewell, HMP Featherstone in Wolverhampton, HMP Birmingham and HMP Stoke Heath in Market Drayton.
Some of the drones seized were analysed by Operation Trenton (the team of investigators put together by the Ministry of Justice earlier this year in response to the growing threat to prison security posed by drones). The intelligence gleaned was then passed to the police.
During the course of the investigation, it emerged that Craig Hickinbottom was the ringleader behind the criminal enterprise, using mobile phones to direct operations from his prison cell. Mervyn Foster was Hickinbottom’s key contact on the outside, involving himself in all of the individual drone flights.
Meanwhile, evidence revealed that Hickinbottom’s partner, Lisa Hodgetts, managed the money on behalf of the gang and ensured everyone was paid. Hodgetts has accepted that she laundered in the region of £125,000 for the gang.
At one point, police discovered that Hodgetts paid Foster by giving him a static caravan and plot in North Wales and had told her local authority that she wanted to buy her £72,000 council-owned property outright, despite only earning a modest income as a beautician.
As the police built their case against the group, covert camera footage from the perimeter of one prison helped to identify a number of the gang members operating drones outside, while the analysis of mobile phone data helped to provide evidence of a link between those on the outside and offenders in prison.
Contraband in prison
Hickinbottom admitted four counts of conspiring to bring contraband into prison, as well as conspiracy to supply psychoactive substances.
Foster, who was described as the conspiracy’s “prime organiser on the outside”, worked with John Quinn, who admitted three counts of conspiracy and another of conspiring to supply psychoactive substances.
Foster had others assisting him with packaging and transport, namely Terry Leach, Ashley Rollinson, Yvonne Hay and her boyfriend Francis Ward. Foster obtained some of the drugs he sent in from Artaf Hussain, who pleaded guilty to being concerned with the supply of cocaine.
On the inside, Hickinbottom was assisted with distribution in jail by cousin and co-conspirator John Hickinbottom. His cellmate Sanjay Patel used one of the illegal mobile phones which had been flown in (an offence he admitted).
The total drugs seized from those drones had a potential prison value of £370,000. There were a further 34 flights to prisons across the UK, including flights to HMP Perth in Scotland and HMP Doncaster.
The contents of the packages from those drones are unknown. Based on the value of the items seized, police estimated that the prison value of items from the remaining flights would be somewhere in the region £1.2 million.