A GANG that recruited vulnerable teenagers in council care to sell huge quantities of heroin and crack have been jailed for more than 20 years.

The 16-strong group was run from Liverpool and used boys as young as 14 to organise deliveries to addicts in Exeter, Exmouth, Dawlish, and South Devon.

The boys were bullied into carrying on dealing to pay off the value of drugs and cash which were seized by police in a succession of raids and arrests between October 2020 and February2022.

The leaders of the group received long sentences in a series of trial at Exeter Crown Court while the exploited youth all received Youth Rehabilitation Orders or suspended sentences.

The gang was run from Liverpool and used 35 different street names to identify the so-called ‘graft’ lines which were used to offer and supply drugs.

Some of the children involved were in Devon County Council care and were able to carry on dealing drugs despite being in extremely expensive specialist placements with one-to-oneround the clock supervision.

One even offered drugs for sale while being exported to court by a social worker and rang his own drug line at the age of just 15 from a children’s home in Essex where he was one of jury three boys.

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.

Police have released images of the main adult offenders and of the drugs, weapons, cash and designer goods which were seized during the investigation, which was codenamed OperationHarbinger.These include a large machete found under the bed of a 16-year-old boy who was running his own drugs line and a pile of banknotes seized from a 15-year-old.

‘We will not tolerate criminality of this nature’

After the case, SeniorInvestigating Officer, Detective Inspector Sam Smoothy, said: ‘Throughout the life of the investigation the prosecution team prioritised keeping people safe by taking positive action against those involved where appropriate, ensuring that all the available evidence was carefully reviewed and considered. 

‘The charges, and ultimately the convictions, resulting from this investigation are based on the evidence presented to the court.

‘This case sends a clear message to the public that where the evidence supports a prosecution, we will not tolerate criminality of this nature and public safety will always come first.

‘Getting involved in the supply of drugs is serious and there are serious consequences when you are caught.’

Criminal network was very active

Ann Hampshire, of the CPS SouthWest Complex Casework Unit, said: ‘This was a complex case involving a drugssupply network sourcing cocaine and heroin from Liverpool to be sold in Devon, principally in Exeter, Torbay and North Devon. 

‘The criminal network was very active, with those involved boasting of taking £1,000 per day for drugs they sold. These convictions reflect our commitment to dismantling organised crime groups who seek to profit from a trade that causes misery to communities. 

‘This was an unusual case involving some young people who took on leading roles in the criminality, instructing other youths to work on their behalf in the illegal drugs trade. 

‘It was particularly concerning to find that some of the youths also carried weapons. This kind of behaviourrisks serious harm to the person carrying the weapon and those who they mayencounter. 

‘Communication evidence supported by police observations and drug seizures provided vital evidence that enabled the police and CPS to build a strong case to secure these convictions and shut down the criminal network.

‘The CPS works closely with our partners in the police to disrupt and dismantle criminal gangs who blight communities in the South West with their harmful and illegal trade in drugs.’

Children are taking an active part in organised crime

Detective Superintendent Jon Bancroft, Head ofProactive Investigation said: ‘This investigation illustrates the changes and complexities that the Police and other agencies face with the growing direct involvement in children taking an active part in organised crime groups. 

‘This isn’t something we would have seen on this scale a decade ago.

'The specialist role of the Crown Prosecutor in this has been essential as without their guidance and input, as well of the presentation of the case by Mr Ray Tully KC, we would not have effectively dismantled thisOCG and prevented further victims being drawn into their web.

‘This isn’t simple work, organised crime constantly evolves tactically and its insidious nature and influence demands that, as in this case, it is a system and community approach reliant on the public support.’

The sentences

The sentences passed to the offenders are:Four teenagers were given Youth RehabilitationOrders.

Three were given Youth Referral Orders.

James O’Reilly, aged 29, of Old Quarry Drive, Exminster, was sentenced to 12 years.

Robert Hadwin, aged 31, of Ellery Drive, Liverpool, was sentenced to 6 years 9 months. Liam Rhodes, aged 21, originally from theTiverton area, was sentenced to 26 months.

Alfie Smith, aged 21, originally from the Exeter area was sentenced to 20 months.

Colby Seatherton-Hill, aged 19, originally from the Tiverton area, was given an18-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. 

Two further adults await sentencing in the coming weeks.