A DEALER who exploited children in care by luring them into a County Lines drug gang has been jailed for eight years and three months.

Billy Curtis was part of a large scale operation which brought hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of heroin and crack cocaine from Liverpool to Devon.

He recruited teenagers as young as 13 to deliver the drugs to addicts who ordered them on a series of drug lines between 2020 and February 2022.

The 16-strong gang’s main bases were Exeter and Torbay but Curtis extended the geographic spread to Mid and North Devon, Exmouth and Dawlish.

Two of the children who he recruited while they were in the care of Devon County Council proved so good at their jobs that they were promoted within the organised crime group and ended up running their own drugs lines when they were just 15.

One of them took over from Curtis when he was arrested and remanded in custody.

The youth carried on running the phone line when he was in specialist council care which was costing council tax payers thousands of pounds a week.

Curtis was only 18 when he began selling drugs and had personal charge of different operations in and around Cullompton and Ilfracombe.

The wider gang used 35 different street names to identify the so-called “graft” lines.

One was named after TV star Peter Andre while others included Ramzy, Jerry Curry, Scouse Terry, Des, Sonny, AJ, Snow and Benny.

It sent out more than 3,000 offers to addicts and members boasted of turning over £2,000 a day at its peak.

Curtis, aged 21, of Cowley Bridge Road, Exeter, admitted conspiracy to supply heroin and cocaine and was jailed for eight years and three months by Judge Anna Richardson at Exeter Crown Court.

She told him: “At one point you had a controlling and directorial role in the conspiracy.

“You would tell one of the youths where to go and where to broadcast messages and where to run the graft phone.

“You directed others as to how they could and could not offer drugs for sale and there was evidence of you being threatening to another boy in at least one message.”

Mr Lee Bremridge, prosecuting, said Curtis played a leading role at the outset of the conspiracy and carried on exerting influence through text messages sent from his prison cell after being arrested and remanded in September 2021.

He said: “He was directing those much younger than himself. He had a real and substantial influence on others in the chain.”

Mr Daniel Pawson-Pounds, defending, said Curtis was himself a vulnerable teenager when he became involved.

He had previously been officially ruled to be the victim of modern slavery and he was drawn into the conspiracy because he owed money for cannabis.

He did have a legitimate job before he was a drug dealer, has worked hard to acquire new skills while on remand, and plans to lead an honest life after his release.

Curtis’s sentence means the gang have been jailed for a total of almost 40 years.

The others are: Dean Hooson, aged 30, of Duke Street, Cullompton, seven years; James O’Reilly, aged 29, of Old Quarry Drive, Exminster, 12 years; Robert Hadwin, aged 31, of Ellery Drive, Liverpool, six years and nine months; Liam Rhodes, aged 21, originally from the Tiverton area, for 26 months and Alfie Smith, aged 21, from Exeter for 20 months.

Colby Seatherton-Hill, aged 19, from the Tiverton area, was given an 18-month suspended sentence.

Alice Shotter, aged 32, of Exwick Road, Exeter, and an 18-year-old man from Exeter were given 20-month suspended sentences.

Four teenagers were given Youth Rehabilitation Orders and three received Youth Referral Orders.

In all, seven teenagers received referral or rehabilitation orders after admitting or being convicted of the conspiracy while the two most senior adult organisers were jailed for 12 years and six years and nine months.