Wigan man who led drugs gang jailed for 15 years after being identified from beer photograph

Four men involved in an organised crime group responsible for the supply of substantial amounts of class A drugs have been jailed for almost four decades.

By Gaynor Clarke
Wednesday, 11th May 2022, 10:16 pm
Updated Thursday, 12th May 2022, 12:23 pm

Manchester Crown Court heard how the gang – spearheaded by Wigan man Leon Atkinson, 41 – had been involved in transferring more than £9m in just three months.

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Detectives trawled through thousands of lines of chat sent between four members of the group on encrypted communications network EncroChat, which was smashed by law enforcement agencies in summer 2020.

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The photograph sent by Leon Atkinson which led to police identifying him

It prompted the UK’s largest ever law enforcement operation, codenamed Venetic.

The messages revealed how the men were arranging the purchasing and transporting of multi-kilo quantities of cocaine – with Abdul Ghafar, 46, directly involved in transferring four kilogrammes and at least £6.5m, and distributors Adam Marsden, 37, and Nathan Powell, 31, sourcing and supplying more than 40kg of class A drugs between them.

Police recovered an image of Atkinson drinking beer in his garden during the coronavirus lockdown, which was sent from his device to a leading member of another drugs gang, confirming he was heading the drug conspiracy.

Also involved in the enterprise was Romiz Ahmed, 39, who – despite not having an Encro phone – was convicted of money laundering for the gang, totalling at least £1.9m in the three months.

The four men have been jailed for almost 40 years

Four of the five men have now been jailed.

Atkinson, Marsden, and Ghafar all admitted conspiracy to supply class A drugs and conspiracy to transfer criminal property.

Atkinson, of Brindley Close, Atherton, was jailed for 15 years; Marsden, of Taunton Avenue, Rochdale, was jailed for nine years and eight months; and Ghafar, of Halifax Road, Nelson, was jailed for eight years and eight months.

Powell, of Cheney Close, Openshaw, pleaded guilty to the same offences and will be jailed later this week.

Ahmed, of Rossall Road, Rochdale, was jailed for six years after being found guilty of conspiracy to transfer criminal property, being concerned in an arrangement which facilitates the acquisition, retention, use or control of criminal property.

So far in Greater Manchester, more than £2.5m has been seized under Operation Venetic, as well as nearly a dozen firearms, more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition, over 12kg of class A and 25kg of class B drugs, and more than £300,000 of assets including luxury jewellery and vehicles.

Over 200 people have been detained by police since July 2020 and more than 150 of those have been charged for drug, firearms and money laundering offences.

Det Insp Roger Smethurst said: “This was an extremely sophisticated drugs gang that effectively distributed mass quantities of cocaine across the North West. They had no shame in profiting from flooding communities not just with illicit substances, but also with the misery, violence and deprivation that comes with it.

“Some of the individuals sentenced here are some of the higher-level organised criminals that operate in Greater Manchester, and again demonstrate the unprecedented damage we – as law enforcement – are being able to inflict on multi-million-pound gangs as a result of EncroChat.

“It is clear no criminal is untouchable and no unscrupulous individual is safe from detection; organised crime is one of our top priorities at GMP and we continue to do all we can to rid our streets of drugs, gangs and violence that tears communities apart.”