A drug dealer who thought he was "untouchable" as he smuggled millions of pounds of cocaine around the UK was caught after he took a selfie drinking beer in his garden during lockdown.
Leon Atkinson, who stood trial alongside notorious killer Dale Cregan a decade ago, has been jailed for 15 years after police proved he was the head of a Tameside organised crime group.
In 2013, Atkinson was cleared of the murder of Mark Short and attempted murder of three others while Cregan was given a whole life order for four firearm murders.
But it was a picture of him drinking beer on a sunny day that would eventually end his decade-long crime spree.
Taken on April 2020, it showed Atkinson wearing a red Armani T-shirt, smiling in his garden during the first lockdown.
A target of Greater Manchester Police (GMP), authorities believed Atkinson was the head of an organised drugs gang – but they needed to link him to the crimes.
The picture was sent to a leading member of another drugs gang and was discovered after law enforcement cracked the "secret" encrypted network the gang used to message each other, using the nicknames ‘Carrothorn’/’Maidenbear’, ‘Mistersmallhead’, ‘Festiveape’, and ‘Shaggyfarmer’.
The recovered image helped police prove Atkinson was behind the Carrothorn/Maidenbear nicknames, and thus was the head of a drugs ring which had smuggled more than £9 million of cocaine in just a three-month period.
The messages revealed how gang members were arranging the buying and transporting of multi-kilo quantities of cocaine with Abdul Ghafar, 46, directly involved in transferring 4kg and at least £6.5m, and distributors Adam Marsden, 37, and Nathan Powell, 31, sourcing and supplying over 40kg of class A drugs between them.
Atkinson, Marsden, Powell and Ghafar all admitted conspiracy to supply class A drugs and conspiracy to transfer criminal property.
Atkinson, from Atherton was jailed on Tuesday for 15 years; Marsden, from Rochdale, for nine years and eight months and Ghafar, from Nelson, for eight years and eight months. Powell will be sentenced later this week.
Also involved in the enterprise was Romiz Ahmed, who – despite not having an Encro phone – was found guilty of money laundering vast sums of cash on behalf of the gang – which police found totalled at least £1.9m in the three-month window of evidence they were able to recover.
The 39-year-old from Rochdale was jailed for six years.
Detective Inspector Roger Smethurst, from GMP’s Serious and Organised Crime Group, 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."
Operation Venetic – the nationwide crackdown led by the National Crime Agency (NCA) into the criminal use of EncroChat – has seen GMP detain more than 200 people and seize about £2.5m in cash, dozens of firearms, ammunition, drugs, luxury jewellery and vehicles.
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