Two men were warned today (Friday) by a judge that they faced “substantial custodial sentences” over a lucrative drugs racket which involved the use of the internet’s “dark web”.
Richard Charles Patrick Sinclair (32), of Cranagh Road, Coleraine, Co Londonderry, used a bedroom in his grandmother’s house to buy drugs over the internet from Holland using the online currency ‘bitcoins’ and then distributed them to customers inside DVD cases.
Kyle James Hall, 26, used his Chamberlain Street home in east Belfast where he lived with his partner and their infant child to run his own similar online drugs distribution network.
Sinclair pleaded guilty to possessing Class A drugs with intent to supply, importing a Class A drug, being concerned in the supply of Class A, Class B and Class C drugs, and converting criminal property.
Hall pleaded guilty to possessing Class A, Class B and Class C drugs with intent to supply, attempted supply of Class A drugs and possessing criminal property.
A third co-accused, Stephen Rodgers (29), of Glynn Park Close, Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, who was described as a ‘patsy’ in the drugs operation, pleaded guilty to being concerned in the supply of Class A, Class B and Class C drug and converting criminal property.
Belfast crown court heard the drugs enterprise described as a “sophisticated and commercial operation’’ which involved sums of money totalling several hundred thousand pounds.
In August 2016, police searched Sinclair’s home he shared with his grandmother and during the raid officers found him in his bedroom “in the process of destroying evidence on his computer”.
Prosecution lawyer Philip Henry told Judge Geoffrey Miller QC: “Displayed on the computer screen was a list showing details of hundreds of drugs transactions.”
Inside the property detectives found “five sealed packages” which contained the names and addresses of clients and which were stamped and ready to be posted out.
Three of the packages contained DVD cases containing packages of MDMA powder. Two of the packages were addressed to Kyle Hall and contained £1,500.
Police suspected that this was payment for drugs that Hall was sending to Sinclair the same day via a courier company containing 3,000 tablets of Class A drug.
The searches also netted a tin box found under the computer desk containing around 70 grammes of MDMA powder and 310 LSD tablets.
Officers also discovered a cash box containing around £6,000.
During the course of this search, the court heard the police also uncovered a large quantity of DVD cases, brown cardboard envelopes, a vacuum sealing device, doctored deodorant containers to allow drugs to be put inside and a box of latex gloves.
The drugs were normally concealed inside a DVD box, said Mr Henry, which was “vacuum sealed’’ and given an outward appearance of being a “legitimate DVD distribution business’’ with holograms stuck on the front of the DVD case before despatch to his clients.
“Anyone looking at it would think it was from a professional distribution business.”
Sinclair’s computer was examined by the PSNI’s Cyber Crime unit who found emails he had sent to customers. He signed the emails by his ‘dark web’ name ‘S&G’ - which stood for ‘Smash and Grab’.
Customers were told to send secure packages to a mail box service in Armagh which would then be forwarded to him before he would then send out the drugs.
The court heard the examination of his computer revealed “a vast amount of information’’ about Sinclair’s client base and the extent of his drugs sales operation over an 18 month period to August 2015.
“A precise calculation of the sales proceeds is difficult to assess accurately, but it is believed to be in excess of £200,000,” said Mr Henry.
“It is clear from the Cyber Crime Unit’s report that Sinclair’s customer base extended across Scotland, England and throughout Northern Ireland.
This was a professionally run online based drug distribution business.
The court was told that while police were searching Sinclair’s Coleraine address, a parcel had been brought to a courier business in Belfast and addressed to Sinclair. A total of 3,000 tablets were found inside the parcel.
“CCTV enquiries showed that the person who attend the courier business was Mr Hall,” explained Mr Henry.
The same day, police also searched Hall’s house at Chamberlain Street. He was not initially at home and his partner and one year old daughter were present before he returned to the property later.
Judge Miller QC was told police recovered “a significant quantity of drugs” which included one kilo of herbal cannabis; 1,000 tablets inside a parcel, 9,700 diazapem and clonazepam tablets; around 500 grammes of crystal MDMA; and 1,100 morphine and oxycodone tablets.
Other items seized included documentation relating to a bank account in the name of co-accused Stephen Rodgers; £7,500 in cash; electronic scales; ‘bulking powders’ were found in the hotpress; a large quantity of packaging material including cardboard envelopes, vacuum packing material, heat-seal bags and postage stamps; package delivery notices and postal receipts; and a number of rubber gloves.
Police estimated that the total street value of the drugs found in Hall’s property was over £100,000.
However, this was disputed by an expert instructed by Hall’s defence team who had put the value of the drugs at less than half of the police’s estimation.
But Mr Henry told the court: “Value doesn’t inform sentence. When considering this issue for sentencing, I would suggest the focus is on the quantity rather than the value.”
Police also searched Rodgers’s home at Glenvarlock Street, in east Belfast, and found a “hydraulic press” in a garden shed.
At police interview, Rodgers denied knowledge of the hydraulic press and said Hall had access to his house and it was left at his home by Hall.
During a search of his house, police found bank account details in his name which related to the same account as the documentation officers had found in Hall’s car.
At interview, Rodgers admitted allowing Hall to use his bank account through which large sums of money had been deposited.
Mr Henry asked for a forfeiture order in respect of a caravan Hall had bought and was left at a caravan park in Portrush.
He said Sinclair and Hall were in a different sentencing category to Rodgers who he described as a ‘patsy’.
The prosecution lawyer said Rodgers’ involvement was “limited to allowing his address to be used for the delivery of drugs at the request of Hall” along with allowing his bank account to be used to deposit money.
Sinclair’s defence barrister Michael Boyd said Sinclair had made “full admissions’’ at police interview and “actively assisted police in their inquiries to the extent of his offending and role and deserves significant credit for that”.
He added: “He admitted at interview to very serious offences and put his hands up to them. He knows the consequences of his admissions. He is ashamed and remorseful.”
Hall’s defence barrister John O’Connor said the hydraulic press was not placed by his client at Rodgers’s house and there was no forensic evidence to link him it.
He said Hall denied that the “bulking powder” was being used in the drugs operation, saying it was of a “cookie flavour”.
Mr O’Connor said Hall admitted his role in selling morphine with intent to supply, adding: “This is not a case where he is standing outside gates or dealing drugs in a community setting.”
Barrister Luke Curran for Rodgers said the 29-year-old once had a bright career but fell into drug addiction and Hall had been “considerably supportive with him”.
He added that as a result of this, Rodgers allowed Hall to use his bank account to and accepted he “knew something dodge was going on but not what it was”.
Judge Miller QC told Sinclair and Hall that “substantial periods in custody were inevitable’’ for them for their involvement in “the scourge that is drugs present in society”.
The judge added that as there was a considerable volume of paperwork he needed to consider, he would permit the three defendants to bail and ordered them to return to court on January 6, 2017 when he will pass sentence.