Birmingham Crown Court

Prison drone flights gang to be sentenced following criminal case

Image credit: Birmingham Crown Court. Rex Features

Lawyer for the prosecution said packaged-up items – including drugs and bladed objects – were hung from UAVs using a fishing line and could be delivered straight to inmates’ cells after being flown over walls of jails

Criminals involved in a conspiracy that entailed flying remote controlled drones laden with designer drugs, tools, phones and SIM cards into prisons are due to be sentenced this week following one of the first UK court cases of its kind.

Prosecutors said “almost daily flights” were recorded into jails in areas including the north west of England, the Midlands and Scotland, with profit having been the motive for making good inmates’ orders.

The drone operations spanned the period from mid-2015 to spring 2017. Contraband items flown in over prison walls included synthetic cannabis and other psychoactive substances. These were wrapped up ‘Russian doll-like’ in parcels hung from beneath the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Police closed in on the outlaws after some were caught on film by a hidden camera that had been set up with the intention of observing nocturnal wildlife. The fingerprints of some of the culprits were also found on illicit packages.

One of the first drones spotted by prison authorities was seen over HMP Featherstone, near Birmingham, in March last year. It dropped its packages on the jail’s roof, and prison officers retrieved them and found that they contained drugs and phones as well as a hacksaw blade and cutters.

QC Michelle Heeley, for the prosecution, told the court these were items which, in the wrong hands, could be used as weapons.

She told the court: “The drone would have a length of fishing line attached, with parcels tied onto it, which could then be delivered straight to the cell that had ordered it.”

Financial rewards for the criminal enterprise could be “huge” because the value of drugs increases 10 fold in prisons compared with on the street, she said.

In all, 11 defendants admitted their roles in the conspiracy, although the charge sheet also referred to “others unknown” – meaning detectives think there were further co-conspirators who have not yet been identified.

Of the drone flights, 34 evaded security and got through. The true total value of the goods flown in is unknown.

E&T was at Birmingham Crown Court earlier this week to witness a “trial of issue” involving one prisoner, 35-year-old Craig Hickinbottom – a key player in the gang enterprise – and drone pilot Mervyn Foster, 36, of High Street, Tipton, West Midlands, who the prosecution said had been the “main man on the outside”.

Foster and Hickinbottom both accepted they had been involved in facilitating the deliveries. The unusual legal process, presided over by judge Roderick Henderson, was merely intended to pin down more accurately the accepted extent of their involvement. Both men will be sentenced later this week.

Hickinbottom, who was a prisoner at HMP Featherstone in Staffordshire, and later HMP Hewell in Worcestershire, admitted organising deliveries to both jails, working with an associate “on the outside”, a man called John Quinn, 35, of Swancroft Road, Tipton.

In the case of Hickinbottom, his lawyer Paul Wakeley disputed the extent to which he had been involved in “nationwide” operations, while Foster’s lawyer, Oliver Grimwood, took issue with the alleged awareness of his client of the presence of a small amount of Class A drugs in a delivery.

Craig Hickinbottom’s cousin John Hickinbottom, 50, also helped arrange things “on the outside”, acting as “warehouse man”, his barrister said. He was paid in heroin.

Meanwhile, Hickinbottom’s girlfriend, 32-year-old Lisa Hodgetts of Tividale, West Midlands, took payment for the deliveries through her bank account. Evidence showed records of different prisoners’ orders were kept by using the pennies column of each individual payment as a reference to a prison inmate’s cell number  for example “37p”, in reference to cell 37.

Foster had others assist with packaging and transport: Terry Leach, 19, of Wednesbury Oak Road, Tipton; Ashley Rollinson, 21, of Waiver Road, Brierley Hill; Yvonne Hay, 41, and her boyfriend Francis Ward, both of Bloxwich Road, Walsall.

Hickinbottom’s cellmate Sanjay Patel, 37, of Telford, Shropshire, but formerly of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, used one of the illegal mobile phones that had been flown in.

Foster obtained some of the drugs he sent in from 30-year-old Artaf Hussain, of Slater Road, Tipton, who pleaded guilty to being concerned with the supply of cocaine.

Sentencing of all 11 defendants is expected to take place later today. Several prisons in the UK are known to be upgrading their perimeter defences to try and thwart criminals looking to use the flying vehicles to smuggle in contraband items.

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