Gang members jailed for 'huge' cocaine smuggling operation
- Credit: Essex Police
Members of a gang which smuggled cocaine through ports before selling it on dealers across the region have been jailed for a combined total of 40 years.
Christopher Golding headed up the Harlow-based network, which smuggled cocaine in containers through ports before selling it on to gangs supplying west Essex, Hertfordshire, London and Suffolk.
The operation was estimated to have earned them at least £500,000, which was stashed in Bitcoin or laundered through the pub Golding ran as a licensee.
More than £100,000 in cash, assets and weapons - as well as £120,000 worth of cocaine - was later seized, with more money set to be counted by the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Golding, 39, of Hart Road, Harlow, was among seven men who admitted conspiracy to supply a class A drug when they appeared at Chelmsford Crown Court on March 24.
To catch the gang members, Essex officers raided 18 addresses in Harlow and one in Haverhill, Suffolk, on October 8 last year. More than 200 officers were involved in the warrants.
They started the investigation into the group after members of the public reported seeing drug dealing taking place.
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Two of the group members, Lee Collett and Lee Wilkinson, were arrested in May 2018.
As officers progressed their enquiries, they began identifying main players higher up the chain - eventually leading them to Golding.
Then, last year an international operation led in the UK by the National Crime Agency saw the takedown of the encrypted communications platform EncroChat.
The secure mobile phone instant messaging was primarily used by criminals to co-ordinate and plan activities, including the distribution of illicit commodities and money laundering, Essex Police claim.
Messages obtained from infiltration of EncroChat provided further evidence of the scale of the drugs operation being run by Golding and dated back to Christmas Day 2017.
He was arranging bulk sales of cocaine, charging £41,000 for a kilogram.
It was also evident he was using Bitcoin as a form of payment and was laundering money through the crypto currency.
Financial investigators, working with colleagues from the Eastern Region Serious Operations Unit, identified he had transferred more than £120,000 into Bitcoin accounts in 2020.
Det Ch Insp Lewis Basford, of the Serious Violence Unit, said: “The extra evidence secured from the EncroChat messages was the final nail in the coffin for Golding and his key associates.
“With this information and the wealth of evidence officers had already secured throughout this complex investigation, they had nowhere to hide and no option but to plead guilty at court.
All eight men have now been sentenced at Chelmsford Crown Court:
- Christopher Lee Collett, 37, of Perry Spring, Harlow was jailed for two years;
- Robert Aldred, 30, of Pittmans Field, Harlow was jailed for two years and eight months;
- Agirdas Gustaitis, 31, of Meadow Court, Harlow was sentenced to two years and four months;
- Stuart Thurgood, 39, of Morley Grove, Harlow was handed eight years in jail;
- David Wilkinson, 36, of Primrose Hill, Haverhill was given four years and eight months in prison;
- Lee Wilkinson, 38, of Parsonage, Leys, Harlow was sentenced to six years and eight months;
- Adam Dalby, 36, of Wedgwood Drive, Harlow recieved a sentence of six years and eight months;
- Golding was given a 12-year prison sentence;
Stuart Thurgood was Golding’s right-hand man in the criminal network. Brothers Lee and David Wilkinson oversaw the day-to-day running of the drugs line.
At the sentencing hearing, the judge praised the police investigation and the prosecutor in the case
Det Ch Insp Basford said: “What was unusual about this particular organised crime group was the key players were virtually all local to Harlow yet were supplying drugs gangs operating across London and three counties.
“The scale of their operation was huge and we estimate they were selling around 3kg of cocaine a week to about ten county lines gangs.
“By taking out these links in the chain, we are also helping to protect vulnerable adults and children who these criminals exploit, groom and use for their own financial gain.”
Twelve people who were arrested as part of the investigation remain under investigation.