The inside story of how undercover police took down a drug gang in 8 weeks
- Credit: Norfolk Police
On Thursday, drug kingpin Damien Laverick was jailed for eight years for running a gang which sold £140,000 of crack and heroin in Great Yarmouth. Eleven of his co-conspirators are awaiting sentencing.
Investigations reporter Joel Adams explains how a little-known undercover Norfolk Police unit brought down the operation in eight weeks.
The first cracks in the conspiracy came with two strokes of luck, but as with so much in life it was luck earned by years of planning, training, and teamwork.
On February 5, 2020 a street dealer - and long-term addict - sidled up to an undercover PC in Cobholm and offered him crack cocaine. Timothy Newbon, 42, was arrested and his phone searched.
The next day traffic officers stopped Damien Laverick for driving while disqualified and found phones and drugs paraphernalia in the car. He and his passengers were arrested, and their homes searched .
Laverick, 23, would later be described as the “malevolent kingpin” of the Chase Two county line drugs gang, by the judge who sentenced him to eight years this week.
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In two days the Great Yarmouth Neighbourhood Policing Team (NPT) had made contact with the tail and the head of a snake which would bring more than 1kg of class A drugs into their town.
Within eight weeks 13 conspirators had been arrested and the Chase Two gang smashed. But the speedy operation was the result of work which began years earlier.
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“Back from the dead”
By summer 2017 Yarmouth was flooded with crack and heroin, brought in from London and dealt via the Deano county line.
A “county line”, is the police term for a phone number known to addicts, which is run by a criminal gang who source drugs in a major city and import them into regional towns and cities.
The dealers send bulk texts to their contacts over the phone line, and recruit vulnerable addicts and children to work as street level dealers and runners.
Police cracked the Deano line, operating since 2013, and the gang were jailed for a total of 57 years.
Into the gap in the market stepped Shaun Ellis, who ran the Chase line. His gang’s exploitation of teenagers was so egregious it led to the region’s first conviction for modern slavery in a county lines case.
Police brought down the Chase line in late 2018, and Ellis and co were given 40 years between them.
On the periphery of Ellis’s operation was a young Damien Laverick, given three years and seven months in a young offenders institution.
Texts recovered from addicts’ phones - including the phone seized from Timothy Newbon - showed that within two days of Laverick’s release in January 2020, the Chase line was back up and running in Yarmouth, sending bulk texts offering three wraps of heroin or crack for £20.
Prosecutor Jude Durr told Norwich Crown Court this week that Laverick “brought the Chase line network back from the dead”.
Explicit text messages
Det Con Marley-Jay Symonds, 26, was one of the five PCs who, with their sergeant, comprised the Yarmouth plain clothes Neighbourhood Policing Team in early 2020.
“When we stopped people on the street and saw those texts from “Chase”, offering three for £20, that’s when we knew it was up and running again,” he explained.
But his team had been aware of Laverick’s release and what it might mean. It was intelligence provided by the NPT which led to traffic officers pulling over his girlfriend’s car on February 6, with a disqualified Laverick behind the wheel.
Det Con Symonds said: “He was a runner during Chase One, fairly low level, but after spending a considerable amount of time in prison, as they do, he’d developed networks.
“And it was identified how he was moving around Yarmouth by means of his girlfriend.”
The NPT asked colleagues from Operation Moonshot, the fast-response vehicle unit which acts on intelligence from colleagues and automatic number plate recognition cameras (ANPR), to watch for Laverick and his girlfriend’s car.
When they pulled it over on February 6 with Laverick driving, he and his girlfriend Rachel Harrison, 21, were arrested along with Joshua Luker, 23.
Luker, it later transpired, had been the “Josh” referred to, but not identified, in prison calls connected with the Chase One line. Dealers asking where teenagers being transported from London should spend the night were told: “Give Josh a call.”
When the trio were arrested and their phone contents downloaded their criminality became clear.
“It was explicit - they were talking about picking up reload runs, bagging the drugs, shipping them out.”
There were even text threads between Harrison and the “Chase” number which made it clear she was communicating with her partner.
From those arrests the team identified Luker’s partner Shannon O’Donoghue, and discovered the pair had been sheltering Laverick and using their address to bag and weigh the drugs.
The physical evidence
Continued surveillance of Laverick, Harrison, Luker and O’Donoghue, as well as arrests by NPT officers, led to the identification of other conspirators, including long-term addicts.
At Laverick’s sentencing, the judge said: “The rather elderly population of Great Yarmouth's registered heroin addicts proved a suitable recruiting ground for you.”
The police also identified a car they believed the gang was using for resupply runs to Essex, so they tracked the car’s movements and waited to make an arrest which would provide the evidence to convict the gang.
On March 30 they got their chance.
At the Thickthorn roundabout just outside Norwich they pulled over Troy Daniels, 49, and Ryan Barnes, 19, in a car which also contained 28g of cocaine, 14g of heroin, and a “Chase” mobile phone which rang constantly while they made their arrests.
The drugs they seized, along with evidence of bulk texts sent from the phone, formed part of the evidence prosecutors used to prove that Chase Two distributed 800-1,200g of class A drugs between January 6 and April 1.
The day after that arrest Laverick was re-arrested and the Chase Two line ended.
"Things are much, much better"
Insp Paul McCarthy, 50 who oversees the work of the NPT, said: “We do have teams here targeting drugs, and sometimes people don’t see them.
"A lot of people call the police saying ‘I’ve seen someone smoking cannabis’, and actually, I’d rather catch the person who supplied the person who supplied the person, rather than the person smoking the joint.
“This is like that. The guys we’ve got to court are the people at the top of the chain, and they’re the people we’re aiming for."
Sam Scott, 33, the sergeant running the NPT, said: “We don’t catch the right people if we’re wearing a uniform, we have to get lucky.
"We have to bump into them on a corner, whereas if we’re not wearing a uniform we can catch them.”
Det Con Symonds, now with CID after his time in the NPT, said: “A perfect example is the first arrest of this conspiracy, Timothy Newbon.
“He was basically being directed by the Chase Line to deal drugs.
“What’s key with his arrest, he was out dealing in Cobholm. We were out in plain clothes, through the alleyways, and he literally tried to serve drugs to us.
“Without the plain clothes element it makes it so much harder.”
Det Con Symonds was commended by the judge for his work on the Chase Two operation.
Insp McCarthy added: “If you look five years ago, there was a real bad picture.
“We had maybe 14 county lines, we had violent crime linked to the drugs trade, there was a real issue with possession of knives, we found a Scorpion sub-machine gun on a search.
“Since this team’s been on it, we’re down to two county lines. There will always be some drugs in Great Yarmouth but the violent crime that was here, isn’t really happening now.
“People still have the perception that things are really bad but the reality from what we’re seeing is things are much, much better.”
Laverick, 23, was jailed this week for eight years for conspiracy to supply crack cocaine and conspiracy to supply heroin.
Rachel Harrison, 21, Joshua Luker, 23, Shannon O’Donoghue, 23, Trayan Henney, 21, Ryan Barnes, 19, Timothy Newbon, 42, Paul Beckett, 47, Barry Turner, 50, and Kelly Hale, 36, all of Great Yarmouth, have pleaded guilty to both counts and await sentencing.
Troy Daniels, 49, contested the case but was found guilty of both counts. He was given a suspended sentence.