A drug gang offered ‘buy one, get one free’ deals on crack cocaine and heroin, a court heard.
The gang leader, notorious for his special offers like ‘buy one get one free’ on heroin and crack cocaine, sent out a festive message wishing his loyal customers a merry Christmas and telling them his bargain store would be open for business as usual over the Yuletide holiday.
But the convicted dealer, only out of prison on licence, was under surveillance by detectives determined to lock him up for a second time, together with his army of lieutenants and foot soldiers who worked out of Preston’s Callon Estate.
Police eventually rounded up Watkins, 11 members of his gang – including his brother and his stepson – and three more from a Liverpool organised crime group who supplied them with their deadly merchandise.
Today all 15 were beginning a total of almost 90 years behind bars for their part in a business which flooded the streets of Preston with an estimated £1.2m of Class A drugs.
“Dismantling a crime group of this nature is a really significant win for Lancashire Police,” said DI Peter Danby, who led the investigation, codenamed Operation Rabbit.
“It is really important in terms of taking the drugs off the streets. We estimate that between December and October the turnover for the crime group was in the region of £1.5m.
“That is a large quantity of Class A drugs being brought into the Preston area. It is clear they were posing a real threat to Preston. So this is a fairly significant group of people we have taken out of the system.”
Drugs ringleader Watkins, 28, of no fixed address, was given 12 years. It was the second time in less than four years he had been jailed for drugs offences.
His trusty lieutenant Matthew Botham, 20, of no fixed abode, got four years eight months; Joshua Knowles, 19, of Gammull Lane, Ribbleton, who stepped up to No 2 after Botham was arrested, was jailed for four years and four months.
Mark Watkins, 24, of Waldon Street, Preston and brother of Anthony Watkins was given six years and nine months.
Ryan Blakey, 18, of Lawson Street, Preston, who was Anthony Watkins’ stepson, was sent to prison for three years, 45 days.
Daniel McGuinness, 26, of no fixed abode, got five years and two months in prison. Wayne Small, of New Hall Lane, Fishwick, was jailed for five years and Jason Jackson, 26, of no fixed abode was sentenced to six years and six months.
Kasib Hussain, 35, of Burrow Road, Preston, was sent to prison for eight years and one month. Sam Knowles, 20, of no fixed abode was jailed for six years and six months and a 17-year-old boy from Preston, who can’t be named, was given two years 299 days.
James Wilkinson, 27, of Cotty Brook Close, Lea, got 12 months after admitting assisting an offender.
Merseyside boss Michael Dineley, 27, of Ellerman Road, Liverpool, was sent to prison for nine years. Couriers Stephen Foster, 27, of Upchurch Close, Liverpool and David Mochrie, 39, of West Road, Prenton, got five years and 4 months and nine years 4 months respectively.
Preston Crown Court heard Anthony Watkins ran the Callon group, even though he was only out of prison on licence after serving a sentence for conspiracy to supply drugs to dealers on the streets of Blackpool.
Dineley was the Merseyside group’s top man, but “never got his hands dirty.”
Instead, he employed two drivers to courier the drugs to Preston – Foster, who worked for Network Rail and Mochrie, who had a job with Morrisons.
When police searched Mochrie’s rented house on the Wirral they found two firearms – one a homemade weapon and the other a sawn-off shotgun – together with 35 rounds of ammunition.
“In organised crime gang activity in Preston over the years, there is always some dispute,” said DI Danby. “People have certain areas, or territories, and when someone tries to move into their area they have firearms either for protection or to enforce their will.”
Police say Foster made at least 18 trips to Preston from Merseyside and Mochrie five. When officers “took out” Foster’s car on the M6 they found a quarter of a kilo of crack cocaine which, when analysed, was found to be of 85 per cent purity. Cut down with mixing agents to make it go further, that one haul would have had a street value of around £25,000.
The Operation Rabbit team estimated that if all the journeys made by the two men to the city carried at least the same quantity of crack cocaine, coupled with the heroin also being imported from elsewhere, the Preston gang’s total turnover would have been well into seven figures.
Surveillance began after police received intelligence about a “significant” gang dealing drugs in Preston. Officers watched their movements for 10 months before all 15 were finally rounded up.
Watkins and Dineley pulled the strings, brokering the deals, while those below them either couriered the drugs or sold them at street level.
Members of the two groups were photographed doing deals in or around the Callon Estate. Watkins and his aides were also filmed by a police helicopter at their “rural hide” in bushes on Callon Back Fields which bordered Fishwick Golf Club and the Guild Wheel cycle route.
When officers raided the hide they found more than a kilo of caffeine and paracetamol which were used as mixing agents for the drugs.
When Botham was arrested at an address in Preston he threw a Kinder Egg out of the bedroom window which was found to contain 17 wraps of heroin and 27 of crack cocaine, together worth more than £700. Police also found almost £1,500 at the house.
Officers who raided Mochrie’s detached home on the Wirral found the two firearms in a bag in the garage.
When they visited Watkins’ home in Preston they discovered £10,000, hidden in a fence panel. In Wayne Small’s house on New Hall Lane, they found a large number of heroin wraps.
In total, the Operation Rabbit team estimated the group imported around 16 kilos of crack and heroin into Preston, although they could not establish where the heroin had come from.
“The sentences handed down to these men are the culmination of a long and complex investigation,” said DI Danby. “The investigation established that this gang were responsible for a major drugs supply network incorporating all levels of drug dealing, from street level up to cross-border trafficking over a sustained period of time.
“These individuals caused significant problems on the streets of Preston as a result of their drug dealing and other criminality.
“I hope the fact that these men have now been jailed reassures local residents that we are committed to tackling organised crime on this scale, in turn helping to make their streets a safer place to live.
“Drugs cause serious harm to our communities and we will not tolerate the supply of drugs anywhere in our county and further afield. These sentences should also serve as a warning to those who are involved in such criminality – we will continue to dismantle drugs supply networks by bringing those responsible to justice.”