A criminal organisation operating in West Yorkshire, responsible for trafficking cocaine, has received a collective prison sentence of 49 years. These sentences were handed down following an investigation by the National Crime Agency (NCA) as part of Operation Venetic, the UK’s response to dismantling the encrypted communications platform EncroChat.

The individuals involved, Carl O’Flaherty (38), Paul Shepherd (45), Clinton Blakey (38), and Dane Marshall (42), all residents of Leeds, were identified as members of the criminal group responsible for supplying class A drugs in the north-west of England.

The investigation was initiated in April 2020 when former professional footballer Paul Shepherd, who had played for clubs including Leeds United and Luton Town, was intercepted by the police while driving in Leeds. Upon searching Shepherd’s vehicle, law enforcement discovered a substantial bag of cocaine and an EncroChat device. An analysis of the EncroChat device revealed messages confirming that the drugs belonged to Carl O’Flaherty, who had instructed Shepherd to transport and store them.

On the day of Shepherd’s arrest, O’Flaherty, who led the criminal group, messaged an associate indicating that Shepherd was in possession of £112,500, which was intended to be transported to Liverpool on O’Flaherty’s behalf.

O’Flaherty managed the drug supply operation from various locations in West Yorkshire. One of these locations in Bradford served as a makeshift laboratory in an unsuccessful attempt to extract cocaine from oil. Another address in Leeds functioned as a storage facility and a place where kilo blocks of cocaine were prepared for distribution.

During the search of the Leeds property, authorities discovered 13 kilograms of amphetamine, a significant quantity of chemicals used for diluting cocaine, and equipment confirming that 12 kilograms of cocaine had been repackaged there.

The details of O’Flaherty’s drug business were exposed through EncroChat messages: he would acquire three kilograms of high-purity cocaine for £123,000, dilute the drugs with inexpensive chemicals, and resell four kilograms for £150,000. Further messages revealed that individuals lower down the drug supply chain, including Clinton Blakey, who was one of O’Flaherty’s regular customers, would purchase the cocaine. EncroChat exchanges included photographs of cocaine blocks and discussions of pricing. Blakey would add additional inexpensive substances to the cocaine blocks before selling them for profit, and he was also involved in distributing cannabis.

Dane Marshall, using the EncroChat username ‘kingchef-uk,’ was employed by O’Flaherty to dilute, compress, and repackage the cocaine blocks for distribution—a role commonly referred to as ‘chef.’ Marshall also established a company named ‘Northface Landscaped Ltd’ to launder the proceeds of the group’s criminal activities.

Investigators used EncroChat messaging data acquired after Shepherd’s arrest in April 2020 to link all the individuals to the criminal group. Subsequently, O’Flaherty, Blakey, and Marshall were arrested between May and July 2020. However, Blakey failed to appear in court to face charges in October 2020, leading to a warrant for his arrest.

In 2021, NCA investigators traced Blakey to Madrid, where he was arrested by Spanish Police. Unfortunately, he managed to evade authorities once more after being granted bail in Spain. However, he was arrested in Marbella in May of the current year following a surveillance operation and was returned to the UK on 8 June, where he was immediately placed in custody.

Today, on 6 September, at Leeds Crown Court, O’Flaherty received a sentence of 17 years and 10 months in prison, Shepherd received a nine-year and six-month sentence, and Marshall was sentenced to six years and six months. In addition, Blakey was sentenced to 12 years, along with an additional three years and six months from a separate drugs conviction.

Nigel Coles, NCA Operations Manager, said: “Our extensive investigation has dismantled a dangerous criminal organisation that supplied large quantities of cocaine, a trade that fuels intimidation and exploitation in the north west and throughout the UK.

“It was clear from EncroChat messages that O’Flaherty headed up the group and stopped at nothing to line his own pockets. The cocaine he was distributing would have undoubtedly contributed to violence and misery in our communities.

“At the NCA we are committed to our mission of protecting the public from serious and organised crime, ensuring that hardened criminals such as these men are brought to justice.”