A BRAZEN gang who flew drugs and phones into Risley prison by drone have been locked up for more than 35 years.

Seven conspirators were sentenced at Liverpool Crown Court on Friday for their leading roles in the seven-month plot which potentially generated hundreds of thousands of pounds in profit.

A court heard of the serious impact drugs and phones have in a custodial setting, as well as the sophistication involved in the operation.

It also explained the deterrence needed to prevent such schemes through the imposition of lengthy sentences of imprisonment.

Henry Riding, prosecuting, spoke of how the seven-month conspiracy operated between the end of June 2020 to the start of February 2021, with defendants ‘conveying, or rather smuggling,’ drugs, mobile phones and sim cards into HMP Risley.

Mr Riding said that this was done ‘using sophisticated drones at night to deliver the contraband directly to prisoners’.

Charlie Swann and Aaron Dodd were inmates in the prison at the time, and they played a ‘crucial’ role in directing the drone inbound, dealing the drugs and phones inside the prison and directing the payment from friends and relatives of prisoners into accounts of other conspirators.

Warrington Guardian:

Daniel Johnson, of Woodside Avenue, Alsager, was the drone pilot, whose ‘expertise’ enabled the smuggling of prohibited items into the prison.

The 28-year-old played a crucial role in the conspiracy, and he was present on most, if not all, of the times of a smuggling attempt.

Thurlus Smith, Matthew Cooke and Katie Bickerton were all connected with either Swann or Dodd, and they would travel 20 miles to and from their south Cheshire homes to the perimeter of the prison on multiple occasions to orchestrate the drone flights.

Warrington Guardian:

Bickerton, 22 and of Barnabas Avenue in Crewe, and Nicole Sims, 27 and of Lawton Road in Alsager, would then knowingly receive cash payments from friends of relatives of inmates in return for the drugs and phones.

It was submitted by the prosecution that all conspirators played a ‘leading role’, with Mr Riding stating: “None of these offences would have been possible without those operating on both the outside and inside of the prison.”

Police used phone cell siting and vehicle ANPR data to bring down the gang, which showed that conspirators made repeated efforts to smuggle contraband into prison, at an almost weekly basis at first and then almost daily as the plot developed.

Members were witnessed in locations in close proximity to the prison, such as Silver Lane, New Church Lane and the Spar store on Warrington Road.

Warrington Guardian:

On September 29, 2020, after a drone was sited above the prison and during which time three defendants were cell sited in the area, prison officers confiscated two iPhones, nine sim cards and a haul of drugs from a cell adjacent to those of Swann, 26, and Dodd, 31.

Examinations showed that the while the cocaine, MDMA, cannabis and ketamine seized had a street value of up to £5,430, the inflated value inside the prison, due to demand and unavailability, was up to £54,800.

On January 13, 2021, Cheshire Police conducted five warrants in Crewe and Alsager as part of its investigation into the smuggling.

Ketamine, cocaine, MDMA and cannabis, with a street value of around £8,000 and prison value of around £78,200, were seized from a shed next to Smith’s caravan, as well as a drone, controller and batteries.

Warrington Guardian:

Three drones were also seized from the homes of Johnson and Cooke, 34 and of Grove Court in Alsager.

The drones had been fitted with SD cards appearing to delete or obscure flight data, with some routes deemed ‘impossible’.

For example, date suggested one drone had been flown in Greenland, and then over Alsager seconds later, however some evidence showed activity in the Silver Lane area of Risley.

One drone also had a ‘non-standard’ circuit board fitted to bypass manufacturer restrictions and allow it to fly in ‘no fly zones’ such as above prisons.

The court heard how it was ‘impossible’ to estimate the quantity and value of drugs that were successfully smuggled into the prison, although it is ‘possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds’.

However, examinations of the bank accounts of Bickerton and Sims showed numerous credits from known associates of Risley prisoners, as well as them claiming Universal Credit.

Warrington Guardian:

More than £11,000 was credited into the accounts of Bickerton, with a similar amount also going out, while for Sims, the figure was closer to £21,000, both in and out.

All gave no comment interviews when arrested by police and were later charged, pleading guilty to various charges at different stages.

Anita Swann, 55 and of Meadow Lane in Liverpool, and Susan Dodd, 55 and of Lawtongate Estate in Church Lawton, were also initially charged in connection with the conspiracy.

However, the CPS offered no evidence against them during the hearing and not guilty verdicts were recorded.

Swann, of no fixed address, admitted conspiracy to supply cocaine, MDMA and cannabis and conspiracy to convey a list B prohibited article into prison The same charges were also admitted by Dodd, of Cartwright Road in Haslington, Smith, of Waldrons Lane in Crewe, and Johnson.

Cooke pleaded guilty to conspiracies to supply cannabis and convey a list B prohibited article into prison, with Bickerton admitting conspiracy to convey a list B prohibited article into prison and possessing criminal property. The latter charge was the sole charge on which Sims was convicted.

Warrington Guardian:

Mr Riding informed the court that Swann, who was in Risley serving a five-year sentence for multiple burglaries, attempted burglaries and thefts of vehicles, has eight previous convictions for 38 offences.

Dodd meanwhile, who was also incarcerated for three years at the time for thefts and attempted thefts of vehicles, has 14 convictions for 27 offences.

Smith has 15 for 28, Cooke has 35 for 73 which include jail terms for supplying drugs, Johnson has four for nine, sims has one and Bickerton has none.

Tom Watson, defending Swann, spoke of how the soon-to-be-dad is ‘very determined this will be the last time he is before the courts’.

Warrington Guardian:

Of Dodd, mitigated by Julian Goode, it was said he is remorseful and had a difficult upbringing, while Hugh McKee said that Smith was reluctant to get involved, was not an instigator and did not receive significant sums of money, which was used to pay off a debt.

Sarah Badrawy, defending Johnson, highlighted this is his first prison sentence, about which he is apprehensive, and how he is deemed a ‘low risk of reoffending’.

Father-of-four Cooke was heavily addicted to cannabis at the time, which consumed much of his earnings from the conspiracy, according to Anna Pope, defending.

Moreover, Barry White, defending Bickerton, spoke of her ‘naivety and immaturity’ at the time, how she was ‘taken advantage of’ and how she is regretful and remorseful.

Similar was said of Sims by Mark Connor, who was ‘exploited through coercion’ by her relationship at the time with Dodd and is a sole carer for her young daughter.

Before sentencing, judge David Swinnerton said: “It is estimated the possible total was hundreds of thousands of pounds in profit at the lower end, which shows the money that can be made.

“The supply of drugs in prison risks safety, leads to exploitation behaviour and gives power to more ruthless prisoners.

“It undermines discipline and good order, makes prisoners less safe and the jobs of prison officers very difficult. Mobile phones enable those on the inside to organise criminality outside.”

Swann was jailed for 11 years and four months, while Dodd was locked up for seven years and 10 months and smith for seven years and one month.

Johnson meanwhile was incarcerated for six years and five months, and Cooke was caged for two years and five months.

Bickerton was sentenced to 19 months suspended for two years, with 25 rehabilitation activity requirement days and 200 hours of unpaid work.

A similar punishment was given to Sims, who was sentenced to nine months suspended for 18 months, as well as 10 rehabilitation activity requirement days and 100 hours of unpaid work.

Proceeds of Crime Act proceedings, to learn how much each benefitted from their criminality and if they have to repay any of their ill-gotten gains, will take place over coming months.