How a 50 kilo cocaine seizure convicted a OCG based in Manchester

Nine members of organised crime groups in Cheshire, Cumbria, and Manchester have been jailed for more than 100 years for drug supply offences.

As a result of Operation Matrix, a NWROCU investigation into the multi-kilo importation and distribution of Class A drugs throughout the UK, nine of the defendants entered guilty pleas last year, and the one remaining, Scott Owen was convicted on 25 January 2024 following a trial.  
The investigation began in March 2022 when Cumbria Police asked NWROCU detectives for help in bringing down a local drug dealer, Reece Barnes, who was responsible for selling cocaine in the Windermere area.  
Detectives monitored his whereabouts and gathered evidence of his meetings in country lanes with Cheshire-based OCG Stephen Stockall, where he would trade kilogramme quantities of cocaine for £30,000 in cash. 
CCTV evidence showed that Barnes would stash the drugs he’d bought in a shoe box in a local storage unit near to his home address. He would then supply locally in ‘ounce’ amounts reaping huge profits which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle which included exclusive holidays and city breaks 

Stockhall was arrested on 3 February 2023 whilst still on license from an earlier drugs conviction. His vehicle was stopped on the M56 in Cheshire and officers found more than 40g of cocaine hidden in his car. A search of his house led to more drugs and paraphernalia being seized including ‘dealer lists’ with hundreds of thousands of pounds of drugs sales documented. 

With one of his dealers in custody, Barnes reached out to his Manchester-based crime associates, Scott Owen and Daryl Preston, to source larger quantities of cocaine.  

On 4 February 2023, a drug deal took place between Barnes and Cain Turner which led to the arrest of Barnes later that day in possession of 1kg of cocaine. Turner delivered more than 22kg of cocaine to other customers on the same day but was arrested by officers when his car was stopped on the motorway and they found more than £30,000 hidden under the front seat.  
During the investigation detectives were able to evidence that throughout the conspiracy period, Turner had transported more than 100kg of Cocaine with an estimated street value of approximately £13 million pounds. He was being controlled by a crime group led by Andrew Stephens and Simon Buller, who is due to be sentenced next month.

As part of the investigation, detectives became aware of other dealers who had been supplying Reece Barnes with cocaine. Thomas Whittaker and Michael Evans, both based in Skelmersdale, were supplying multi kilos of cocaine to customers across the country. They would regularly supply Class A  drugs to customers in Swansea, South Wales on the direction of a criminal group in Portugal.  
During one trip to Cardiff, Evans was arrested with 7kg of cocaine, with a street value of more than £700,000.  
Whittaker was arrested on the 25 May 2023. Warrants were carried out at his partners address in Kirkby which led to the seizure of a BMW X5, used by Whittaker used to transport his drugs. Officers also seized 600g of Cocaine hidden in a vehicle parked near his home address in Skelmersdale. 
Andrew Stephens and Simon Buller would use encrypted messaging platforms to send postcodes of drug deals to their couriers who would use tokens to ensure the drugs were being handed over to the right people. Analysis of the messages evidenced that they were working with criminals in Dubai who were controlling the importations of multi-kilos of cocaine from Holland into the UK. Stephens and Buller were the ‘UK’ heads of the crime gang and would send their couriers to ports along the South coast to collect the drugs for storage in safe houses in Manchester.  
On one occasion on 11 May 2023, they used courier Anthony Warhurst to pick up 50kg from a port in Harwich, Essex which had come in on a shipment from Holland. On his way back to the North West, officers stopped him on the motorway where he was arrested with the drugs which had a street value of more than £5 million pounds. Officers were able to evidence that Warhurst had made multiple trips to Harwich on the direction on Stephens and Buller, who were arrested later that day. Stephens and Buller have been evidenced distributing approximately 230kg of Cocaine during the conspiracy period with a street value of over £23 million pounds. 











The final Manchester-based crime gang in the conspiracy were Scott Owen and Daryl Preston who facilitated the supply of multi-kilos of cocaine to Reece Barnes through Whittaker and Evans and also with links to Stephens and Buller.  
Owen was arrested on a flight back from Portugal on 13 May 2023, and Preston near his home address.

In total Operation Matrix evidenced the supply of approximately 350kg of Cocaine between the various crime groups valued in the region of 53 million pounds.

Those sentenced today for Conspiracy to supply Class A drugs include: 
Scott Owen, 33, of Salisbury Way, Astley, Manchester  – 14 years 6 months 
Daryl Preston, 36, of Hamilton Street, Atherton, Manchester – 11 years 6 months  
Stephen Stockall, 62, of Well Lane, Weaverham, Cheshire – 12 years  
Reece Barnes, 31, of Elim Grove, Windermere – 12 years  
Thomas Whittaker, 42, of Brierfield, Digmoor, Skelmersdale – 12 years  
Michael Evans, 36, of Eskdale, Skelmersdale – 6 years  
Andrew Stephens, 41, of Eastfield Drive, Golbourne, Cheshire – 20 years  
Anthony Warhurst, 58, of Knowsley Street, Leigh – 9 years 8 months  
Cain Turner, 32, of Sarah Street, Hindley Green, Manchester – 8 years 8 months

Simon Buller, who also pled guilty is due to be sentenced next month.  
Detective Chief Superintendent Ian Whitehead, Head of the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit said:  
“The convictions of these individuals will have a significant impact on drug supply in the North West and the UK as a whole because we have effectively shut down a drug importation route from Holland into the UK. 
“In total, nine people have now been convicted and sentenced to over 100 years in prison, with one more to be sentenced next month. 
“Collectively these individual crime groups assisted each other in distributing hundreds of kilos of Cocaine not only to Reece Barnes, but to hundreds of customers across the UK. 
“To try and evade police, they used sophisticated, encrypted apps to communicate with each other, regularly changing their travel routes, and would use multiple locations and couriers to facilitate the importations and supplies.  
“We hope that this sends a message to criminals that you are not untouchable. We are committed to ridding the streets of drugs, robustly dealing with high harm offenders to reduce crime and restore trust and confidence in communities across the North West.

“I’d like to thank our colleagues at Cumbria, Cheshire and Greater Manchester Police as well as the CPS for their help throughout this investigation.” 

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