National Crime Agency
Operation Venetic: Gang from Birmingham guilty of drugs supply and possessing deadly firearms
A National Crime Agency investigation has seen the conviction of three members of a Birmingham-based cocaine and heroin supply group which sourced lethal firearms to threaten rivals and customers
Danyal Aziz, 26, and Michael Earp, 29, used encrypted messaging service Encrochat to arrange the importation and sale of class A drugs.
They also bought guns in the belief that they would help protect their business from their criminal competition.
These included three pistols, and a Skorpion sub-machine gun which was recovered from the home of Earp’s cousin Nicole Rhone in Bordesley.
The group used Encrochat in the belief they were operating under the radar of law enforcement, but they were identified by NCA officers following the takedown of the encrypted network by international policing partners.
Officers established the gang’s usernames and were able to recover conversations that showed them actively discussing their drug supply business and the use of weapons.
In one of the messages, Aziz, going by the handle Lushmace, discusses a gun and bullets in his possession and using it against customers who owe him money. He said: “I got 50 sweets [bullets] on me and strap [gun] by my yard, I feel like doing a madness right now.”
NCA investigators also found photos of bullets compatible with a Skorpion sub-machine gun on Aziz’s handset and messages sent later said he was ‘going to get the SK tuned up’ - a reference to a Skorpion. Earp was also seen on CCTV collecting three pistols in Birmingham.
In others, he discussed drugs and the money he was making. Officers evidenced him messaging criminal associates about buying as many kilos of cocaine as he could, in anticipation of the price rising due to Covid lockdown restrictions.
In another message, Lushmace said ‘Check this I made 200k payment 2 days ago’, indicating the amount of money the gang was making from their criminal enterprise. They also shared pictures of ‘tops’, slang for cocaine, and ‘turk’, slang for heroin.
NCA officers found that Aziz was in charge of the group and directed Earp, known as Kneetown, where to deliver drugs money and requested regular updates as to his stocks of drugs.
The gang were arrested between May and July 2020. Rhone was arrested at her home where the Skorpion sub-machine gun was found with a compatible magazine and bullets inside. More ammunition was found in a wardrobe in a child’s bedroom and matched a photo sent on Encrochat.
Earp’s vehicle was searched and NCA officers discovered a large void behind the radio unit where airbags should have been stored. It had been lined with silver tape and metal was welded in place to the back of the radio to secure it. The area was swabbed and traces of cocaine was found.
The group were found guilty of drugs and firearms offences at Birmingham Crown Court after a five week trial yesterday (1 June). They will be sentenced at a later date.
NCA Branch Commander Mick Pope said: “This was a dangerous criminal organisation heavily involved in bringing class A drugs in from abroad and supplying them in Birmingham and throughout the UK.
“They also acquired deadly firearms to scare and intimidate competitors and customers alike, but which of course presented a huge risk to any member of the public.
“It was clear from their Encrochat messages that Aziz was the ringleader of this group, controlling Earp and Rhone to carry out his drugs deliveries and hide weapons.
“This investigation has taken a high risk group off the streets and lethal weapons out of the hands of criminals. The NCA will continue to protect the public from the global trades in illegal drugs and firearms, which bring violence and intimidation to communities through the UK.”
Giorgina Venturella, CPS Specialist Prosecutor, said: “The evidence in this case painted a picture of an organised criminal gang deeply entrenched in a lawless lifestyle, and heavily involved in the sale of drugs.
“Firearms and ammunition had become everyday commodities – casually stashed under a child’s bed – used to intimidate and control as the group plied their illegal trade, posing an evident danger to local communities.
“The encrypted phone evidence was key in this case, showing Aziz directing operations from his handle ‘Lushmace’, and meant the NCA were able to piece together a detailed picture of the gang’s movements.
“Securing these convictions has taken a group of dangerous criminals off the streets of Birmingham and we will not hesitate to prosecute in cases like this. We will also now start proceedings to recover illegally gained money and criminal assets.”
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