In one of the biggest cases of its kind, a gang that used drones to smuggle thousands of pounds worth of drugs and mobile phones straight to prisoners’ cell windows has been jailed for more than 37 years.
Inmates would call a drone pilot on the outside of targeted jails across the country to guide them in to deliver contraband, including strong synthetic drugs such as “mamba” and “spice”, where it was retrieved by prisoners using sticks with hooks.
“Operations director” Lee Anslow, 31, was at the centre of a “spider-web of activity” while he was a serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery at HMP Hewell in Worcestershire.
While careful not to be seen retrieving packages himself, prison officers found fake food cans packed with cannabis, crack cocaine and sim cards in an Aldi bag in Anslow’s cell.
On Friday at Birmingham Crown Court Anslow was jailed for ten years for conveying and supplying drugs, psychoactive substances and mobile phones and sim cards into prisons.
The 13-strong gang was sentenced to a total of 37 years and four months after the court heard how drops worth up to £20,000 a time were delivered between May 2016 and September 2017 – often hanging from a 2-3 metre length of weighted fishing line tied to the drone.
Sentencing the gang, Judge Simon Drew QC said they had been involved in a “sophisticated, carefully planned and executed commercial enterprise” and carried out 100 drone flights netting hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Drone pilots Brandon Smith, who had made 30 flights, was jailed for seven years while Paul Payne, who piloted 13 flights was jailed for three years and eight months.
Another pilot Justin Millington was sentenced to three years and four months.
Paul Ferguson, 38, was jailed for four years and nine months along with Stefan Rattray who received four and a half years. Shane Hadlington was sentenced to four years and three months.
Drone deliveries were made to HMP Oakwood, HMP Featherstone and HMP Dovegate in Staffordshire, HMP Wymott, HMP Birmingham, HMP Liverpool, HMP Hewell, and HMP Risley in Cheshire.
Earlier Michelle Heeley, prosecuting, had said: “Over the course of 14 months this gang flew drones on at least 55 occasions into prisons across the country.
A drone flier, usually assisted by at least one, and often two, other people, would communicate with a phone inside a prison.
“The prison phone was also in contact with at least one other phone – which the police could sometimes attribute, sometimes not.
“Just before, and then during the actual drone flight two phones would be in prolonged contact, one in the prison, one on the outside, the two phones clearly acting together to direct the drone in.
“Every recovered drone had drugs and synthetic cannabis on it, most of the drones also had SIM cards and mobile phones.
“In total, of the 11 flights where the content is known the value of the drugs recovered in a prison environment is in the region of £110,000, the drones recovered represent one fifth of all known drone flights.”
After the hearing DI Gareth Williams of West Midlands Regional Prison Investigation Team said: “This is a significant conviction of a serious and organised crime network which smuggled drugs and other contraband into prisons on a national scale.
“They used pretty rudimentary drones and the pilot Smith was not the most skilful. One recovered drone’s GPS showed him circling his garden countless times in an effort to master it.
“The drones have a long range and can be operated via a smartphone app but because Smith relied on line of sight and guidance over the phone from inmates he had to pilot from within a couple of hundred of metres of the target.
“Unfortunately some view this as a victimless crime but the competition to control drug markets in prison breeds extreme violence posing a grave threat to prison officers and inmates.”
He said Operation Zumetta began on May 7 2016 after a drone with Brandon Smith’s fingerprints was found in a field near HMP Oakwood drone with a package containing up to £50,000 worth of mobile phones, a charger and also 80 grams of MMB CHMICA, commonly known as “mamba”.
Police were able to download the flight data from the drone. They found it had covered 55 flights across the country over 14 months carrying an estimated £500,000 worth of crack, heroin synthetic cannabis and marijuana.
Eleven DJ Phantom drones, half of which had crashed, and worth up to £5,000 in total, were recovered from the gang along with data cards.
Criminologist James Treadwell, of Staffordshire University, described drone deliveries as the “evolution of the prison wall throw-over” offering criminals the means to make lucrative large scale deliveries.
“The price of contraband in jail is ten times its worth on the outside. It means that nowadays jails, with their ‘captive’ audience, are more of a lucrative setting for organised crime groups than the outside.
“The drugs market really changed when synthetic cannabis like Mamba and Spice arrived and now some top-end inmates make thousands very quickly.
“It leads to drug debts which are then collected by squeezing debtor’s friends and relatives on the outside.”
Available figures show there were 33 incidents of drones being detected in or around jails in England and Wales in 2015, up from just two the year before and none in 2013.
Last year a new dedicated squad of prison and police officers was formed in a bid to identify and track down those involved in drone drug deliveries.
Critics however have labelled the issue of drone deliveries a “red herring”, with the former head of the Prison Service Anti-corruption Unit John Podmore claiming staff corruption was a bigger problem.
Former Belmarsh Prison governor Podmore said: “Drones are seen as sexy and get all the limelight but relatively speaking only a small amount of contraband is smuggled in that way.
“It is vulnerable prison staff who have been manipulated and corrupted that bring in the vast bulk of illicit material.
“Inmates know that you only have to corrupt a prison officer once.”
A Prison Service spokesman said today: “We are investing £14m each year putting up grilles and netting to stop items coming over the walls.
“A new Financial Crime Unit has the power to freeze banks accounts of those linked to organised criminals in prison.”