Why no town or village is safe from Britain’s drug gangs

Why no town or village is safe from Britain’s drug gangs: They use texts to plug their evil goods and vulnerable children to deliver them – sending violence rocketing in the shires

  • So-called ‘county lines’ are used to transport drugs from cities to smaller towns
  • ‘Customers’ would receive unsolicited text messages selling heroin and cocaine 
  • One victim was a 13-year-old boy at a top grammar school recruited by a gang 

John Abodunrin is just beginning an eight-year jail sentence for drug dealing. The case at Norwich Crown Court did not make the national Press or TV news. Perhaps it should have done.

For Abodunrin, 25, is not just a drug dealer. He is part of a new criminal phenomenon having a devastating impact across Britain.

One crucial fact sets Abodunrin and his ilk apart from the lowlife drug pushers police are used to dealing with: they no longer peddle their wares simply within their locality.

They can now ply their toxic trade hundreds of miles away. These gangs use a combination of mobile phone technology, speedy train travel and vulnerable young children acting as mules to swamp once sleepy towns and villages across Britain with cocaine and heroin.

John Abodunrin is just beginning an eight-year jail sentence for drug dealing (left) while Courtney Kirby-Diamond (right) was ringleader of the Jay Boys

In the case of Abodunrin’s London-based gang, their primary market was more than 140 miles away — in Norfolk.

At the heart of the operation were two mobile phone numbers which were circulated among known drug users in the county, in particular Norwich and Great Yarmouth.

Abodunrin used these numbers in the same way a legitimate business might. ‘Customers’ often received unsolicited text messages advertising ‘special promotions’ on cocaine and heroin. They would read: ‘Buy 3c [three wraps of cocaine] get 1 free.’

Many were actually bulk text messages sent to his entire ‘client’ list, advertising the availability of drugs. The equivalent, in effect, of a corporate mailshot.

Such phone numbers are known as ‘county lines,’ so called because individuals such as Abodunrin use them to transport drugs from major cities to small rural and coastal county towns around the UK.

A recce of the town would be carried out beforehand. Typically, the home of a vulnerable junky will be taken over (police refer to this as ‘cuckooing’) and they would be dispatched to sell drugs and direct ‘customers’ to the county line telephone number. The drugs are usually of superior quality and cut-price deals are offered to drum up business.

Today, the Mail can reveal that behind this network of drug supply lines is a story of ruthless child exploitation and violence.

One victim was just 13 when he was recruited into a county lines gang. He was a pupil at a leading grammar school in Merseyside when he was targeted. His story, which we highlight today, is deeply alarming.

‘We were the family that nothing like this was supposed to happen to,’ his anguished mother told the Mail. ‘We were not known to police or social services. But the unthinkable did happen and if it could happen to us, it could happen to anyone.’

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The National Crime Agency (NCA) has identified more than 720 county lines networks running between London and Wales, Merseyside and Cumbria and London and the West Country. Each, according to Home Office analysis, makes an average of £3,000 a day and has its own ‘brand’. One line to Somerset was called the ‘Max Line’ by the London gang who ran it because it was so lucrative.

The two run by Abodunrin were known for some reason as the ‘Mason’ and ‘Jimmy Joe’ lines. Nearly 150,000 text messages were found on these phones, which gives an indication of the astonishing scale of his drugs network.

You might think that Abodunrin and a 13-year-old grammar school boy in Merseyside should have very little in common. But both are united by their roles in Britain’s changing drugs landscape. With the drugs market in cities saturated and dangerous, gangs have expanded into the provinces where there is less competition and huge profits to be made.

In Norfolk, calls to the Mason or Jimmy Joe phone lines went directly to Abodunrin or an accomplice in London. Children or young people, lured by the promise of easy money, were used as ‘runners’ to deliver ‘merchandise.’ In other words, do the dirty work.

Youngsters are appealing because — as so-called ‘clean skins’ — they are less likely to be stopped by the police. They are also disposable in the gang hierarchy. Another advantage of using children to courier the drugs is that ‘customers’ never meet the gang leaders. This, of course, means there is less chance of the main players being caught.

The NCA says the majority of children recruited by county lines gangs are boys aged 15 to 17. Social media is one method of recruitment while school gates in respectable areas and care homes have also been targeted. Many of the children are from broken homes and leading chaotic lives, so their absence goes unreported, but some, like our Merseyside boy, come from solid, loving homes.

There are parallels here, the authorities argue, with the sexual exploitation of children in towns such as Rochdale and Rotherham.

It is impossible to put a figure on the numbers of youngsters involved, but Freedom of Information disclosures reveal that, on average, nearly 40 vulnerable youngsters were held every week on suspicion of peddling Class A drugs during the past year.

‘Going country’ — the slang for being involved in county lines activities — has entered the urban vernacular and been glamorised in rap lyrics. But for those drawn in — and their families — the brutal reality of the county lines phenomenon can be horrific.

These drug gangs are now cashing in on the World Cup. The text messages they send out to drug users have been collated on an Instagram account

As the mother of the 13-year-old boy recalls, her son’s descent into criminality was like the script of a TV drama. She agreed to speak out this week to warn other parents of the dangers but asked to remain anonymous because her son is still at risk from his recruiters.

The family’s ordeal began four years ago. Their son had just finished his first year at grammar school and was dreaming of a career as a vet when he fell in with the wrong crowd.

‘He had always done well at school then things started to go dramatically wrong,’ said his mum, who is now working closely with Merseyside Police to raise awareness of the threat posed by county lines gangs. ‘All he talked about was designer labels. He had never been interested in those kind of clothes before. He became foul-mouthed and aggressive and he accused the police of picking on his new “friends”. He shut himself in his room and would not let us in without ten minutes’ notice.’

Often, she said, he would leave the house saying he was going to school, but never get there. Sometimes it took his teachers hours to notice he was missing.

‘I would then walk the streets looking for him,’ his mum said, recalling those heartbreaking days. She now knows that he was running ‘errands’ for the gang — sometimes in another county. After his first disappearance, police told her he was in a gang known to them.

A hoard of mobile phones and other electronic devices used to communicate with the gang were hidden in his room.

But the family’s attempts to get help were met with frustration.

He was not a priority because he was viewed as someone who had ‘chosen a criminal lifestyle’, rather than being a victim. Only now, say his family, have the authorities started to listen.

Merseyside Police describe the family’s ordeal as ‘horrific and harrowing’. They have launched a campaign to warn parents, regardless of background, of the dangers posed by these gangs.

Taxi drivers and train staff are also being given tips on how to spot children being used as drugs mules. The initiative on Merseyside is being repeated by police forces up and down the country.

Chillingly, when the Merseyside boy tried to leave the gang, he was threatened with violence. He is now safe but still vulnerable.

Such threats — and worse — are a common tactic.

Steven Root (left) was a soft target for predators while Jeremiah Abodunrin (right), 22, was jailed for seven years in January for stabbing a man in the chest during a drug deal

One teenager, Merseyside Police revealed, was told that if he disobeyed orders his older sister, the mother of two small children, would be raped, along with his younger sister, aged 12. The infliction of violence in order to obtain control is known as ‘taxing.’ The NCA report, County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply, published last year, lists one case in which a victim had his hand severed and both legs broken.

There was also a 16-year-old found in possession of a knife and 30 wraps of drugs. He had significant burns, mainly on his stomach, consistent with having been scalded with boiling water. He refused to say who was responsible or why but Suffolk Police believe his injuries were meted out by a gang who had placed him in Ipswich to deal drugs.

The escalation of county lines activities has coincided with a surge in violence — normally associated with inner cities — spreading to the suburbs and shires.

Knife crime is up 20 per cent in London over three years.

Yet, in the Home Counties and elsewhere, the increases since 2014 are far steeper. Knife crime incidents in Hertfordshire are up 150 per cent from 229 in 2014 to 573 in 2017; Hampshire is up 102 per cent, Cambridgeshire 83 per cent, and Warwickshire 180 per cent, a trend mirrored almost everywhere.

The rising crime rate, police admit, has been fuelled by increased drug activity which has resulted in ‘turf wars,’ previously confined to urban neighbourhoods, between rivals competing for a share of untapped ‘markets.’

Nowhere is the surge in violence more marked than in Norfolk, where Abodunrin once held sway.

Only last week, a 19-year-old from London was shot in the back in a quiet neighbourhood of Norwich in an attack which bore all the hallmarks of being linked to drug dealing. His injuries were described as ‘serious but non-life threatening’.

At times, police must feel that London-based gangs are mounting a hostile takeover of Norfolk.

One staggering statistic underlines this: in the past 18 months, more than 640 people suspected of being involved in these new kind of drugs networks have been arrested in Norfolk, a corner of the country famed for its unspoilt coastline, sandy beaches and wildlife.

The conviction of Abodunrin last month provides a chilling insight into the merciless young men behind the statistics. Abodunrin has two previous drug dealing convictions, in 2011 and 2013.

His younger brother Jeremiah Abodunrin, 22, was jailed for seven years in January for stabbing a man in the chest during a drug deal in Great Yarmouth in 2017.

Abodunrin’s twin sister, Naomi Abodunrin, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in 2013 for conspiracy to supply heroin and cocaine in the West Country. One family, three convicted county lines drug dealers.

Raphael Castillo (pictured) led another gang. Police seized goods including a £7,300 Rolex watch, when they raided his home in Camberwell

The irony is that the Abodunrins are from a God-fearing family. Although their parents split up when they were young, their father was a missionary in Nigeria before arriving in Britain in the early Nineties. He still preaches in churches around London.

Family albums show John Abodunrin as a toddler dressed in his Sunday best. It is hard to believe that this angelic-looking little boy turned into the ‘callous and calculated’ criminal described in court. ‘I tried my best with all my children,’ his father, the Rev Jacob Abodunrin, said despairingly this week. ‘This is a real trial for me.’

John Abodunrin, the court was told, established a ‘substantial drug dealing enterprise’ in Norfolk and was ‘someone who co-ordinates the activities of others’.

He was arrested in March following undercover police work. The precise details of how Abodunrin, from South-East London, established his county line empire was not revealed.

Because he pleaded guilty (to supplying Class A drugs and possession with intent to supply) the prosecution was not required to present all the evidence in court.

But his modus operandi was the same as gangs which have moved into Kent, Sussex, Cornwall, Wales, and Essex, where our inquiries led us to Hadleigh Road, Clacton.

There, on the top floor of a block of housing association flats, is where a drug addict called Steven Root used to live. Root, 45, was a pathetically vulnerable individual with an abnormally low IQ and a history of self-harm. It made him a soft target for predators.

Root became a ‘cuckoo’ some time before 2016, when his home was taken over by a London gang and used as a ‘stash house’, a base from which to flood the area with crack cocaine and heroin.

Drugs were transported to the seaside town from London in a BMW; in one 33-day period police discovered the car had made 123 journeys between Clacton and the capital. Local youngsters were then paid £100 a day to deliver the drugs around Essex to those who had placed an order on the gang’s county line phone number.

‘Runners’ were also given new trainers and Adidas tracksuits as inducements, say residents who live near the old ‘stash house’. ‘There was always a stream of kids going in and out [of Steven Root’s flat]’, said one elderly neighbour.

The Hackney-based gang who operated this supply chain were called the Jay Boys, because all communication, such as text messages to ‘customers’, were signed off with the letter ‘J.’

They first attracted the attention of police in 2014 following a string of violent crimes in Clacton, including the robbery of a number of rival drug dealers. Eight members of the Jay Boys, under the control of ringleader Courtney Kirby-Diamond, were jailed for a total of more than 40 years at Chelmsford Crown Court last year.

In their pomp, they posed for pictures with wads of cash and gold-plated champagne bottles.

The ‘bling’ culture is epitomised by Raphael Castillo, who led another gang. Police seized goods including a £7,300 Rolex watch, a Fendi backpack worth £2,500, £1,000 trainers and Gucci loafers, along with £3,000 cash hidden in a speaker when they raided his home in Camberwell, South-East London. He also had a Harrods account.

His sports car was registered in the name of Marlo Stanfield, after the fictional drug dealer from cult U.S. crime drama The Wire.

Castillo’s five-strong gang ran the Nova county line which supplied drugs in Yeovil. Castillo, 29, was jailed for more than five years shortly before the Jay Boys were brought to justice in Essex in December 2017. The Nova line was one of a number of drug supply routes operating in Somerset where there have been a wave of county line convictions.

Among them was Habib Uddin. He was under 17 when he was recruited to a gang which ‘served’ Weston-super-Mare. Uddin, who lives in Greenwich, South-East London, has now started a two-year sentence for drug dealing. But was he also a victim?

These drug gangs are now cashing in on the World Cup. The text messages they send out to drug users have been collated on an Instagram account.

One reads: ‘The World Cup Spesh. The most powerful squad around. We here when u need us & deliver sealed & raw ONLY. Faster than Uber. Tell the world.’

Another asks: ‘Q: What do ducks like to smoke? A: Quack cocaine. 5 £40 or 3 for £100. We will be offering our services to you fine people all night and will drop to your preferred destination.’

But behind these ‘promotions’ are drug dealers like John Abodunrin and victims like the 13-year-old from Merseyside. And goodness only knows how many addicts they have created along the way.

Additional reporting: Mark Branagan and Stephanie Condron 

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