Organised crime gang jailed after investigation into drug network

A painstaking investigation has seen seven criminals jailed for almost 60 years after specialist detectives and police staff cracked an encrypted drug supply network.

The network of encrypted usernames or ‘handles’, identified members of a sophisticated organised crime group, who appeared for sentence at Basildon Crown Court on Monday.

This marked the conclusion of a lengthy and in-depth investigation spanning two and a half years.

Officers from our Serious and Organised Crime Unit launched an intelligence-led investigation in 2020 after EncroChat mobile devices were unlocked by law enforcement agencies in Europe.

Eleven warrants were executed at properties across south and west Essex and in Kent in October 2022 and a large quantity of Class A drugs was found.

Paul Austin, 47, of Burnt Mills Road, Basildon, and Daniel French, 39, of London Road, Leybourne, Kent, were at the top of the chain, managing the group and overseeing the supply of cocaine and cannabis, and money laundering.

Encrypted chat logs dated between March and May 2020 show French and Austin were middle-market dealers, sourcing cocaine in bulk and arranging for its onward distribution to lower-level dealers.

Officers were able to prove French and Austin decided who to buy from and sell to, and arranged for the payment of wages to people working for them.

Austin used his dog breeding clinic as a hub for the operation and a key meeting place for members of the group. Cash was deposited at the business to be laundered.

The investigation identified 14kg of cocaine purchased by French and Austin. This was then sold on in wholesale amounts as well as being broken down and sold at street level by others in the group.

When French was arrested, he was found in the boot of a car at the Portsmouth Ferry Port attempting to flee to Spain with a passport and cash.

Teresa Kelly, 50, of Chalk End, Basildon, operated as a money launderer or accountant for the group, collecting and counting profit generated from drug supply.

Investigators also found Kelly had played a part in the smaller-scale street supply of cannabis between April 2020 and October 2022.

Wesley Nice, 45, of Broomfields, Basildon, was responsible for physically distributing cocaine to customers, under the watchful eye of French and Austin.

Nice was responsible for collecting and delivering money – and arranging the physical handover of drugs and money.

He also ran a side business alongside Darren Witteridge, 45, of Long Riding, Basildon, selling cocaine, MDMA and cannabis to his own customer base over an eight-year period.

When he was arrested, he was found with weapons including machetes and £15,000 in cash.

Witteridge was responsible for holding cocaine for the OCG and followed the orders of Nice, taking delivery of kilos of cocaine and breaking them down into smaller deals.

Lee Mallin, 42, of Oak Road, Grays, was identified to be a cocaine dealer who purchased cocaine from the OCG and distributed the drugs to street-level dealers.

Malcom Maxted, 50, of Daiglen Drive, South Ockendon, transported cash and cocaine between Mallin and OCG members Witteridge and Kelly.

Austin, French, Mallin and Maxted admitted conspiracy to supply cocaine and money laundering.

Witteridge admitted two counts of conspiracy to supply cocaine.

Nice admitted two counts of conspiracy to supply cocaine and money laundering.

Kelly admitted money laundering and being concerned in the supply of a Class B drug.

The sentences passed down were:

  • Austin: 12 years and six months’ imprisonment.
  • French: 11 years and ten months’ imprisonment.
  • Nice: 12 years and 11 months’ imprisonment.
  • Mallin: Four years and nine months’ imprisonment.
  • Maxted: Three years’ imprisonment.
  • Witteridge: 11 years and five months’ imprisonment.
  • Kelly: Three years and four months’ imprisonment.

Serious Crime Prevention Orders are being sought against Austin and French.

Court proceedings under the Proceeds of Crime Act are underway to attempt to recover monies gained from the drug supply enterprise.

Detective Sergeant Stephen Robson, of the Serious Organised Crime Unit, said:

“This was a substantial investigation, uncovering a network of criminals who thought they could operate with impunity as they moved vast sums of money and quantities of cocaine.

“They came up against our dedicated Serious and Organised Crime Unit, which was able to piece together the complex web of communications between the members of this organised enterprise.

“We don’t just look to stop drug dealing on the street, our sights are set higher on those involved in the wholesale purchase and supply of harmful substances.

“The sale of drugs is linked to the exploitation of vulnerable users, with people drawn in by the false promise of money, expensive clothing and a luxurious lifestyle. The reality is far different.”

Temporary Detective Chief Superintendent Rob Kirby, head of Major Crime at the Serious Crime Directorate for Kent and Essex for Kent and Essex, added:”This OCG is the largest such group we have investigated across Essex.”