Last Friday, Danielle McEllin, aged 35, and Jake Burns, aged 29, appeared at Liverpool Crown Court. They plead guilty to seven charges collectively, which involved using drones to smuggle contraband into prisons. In particular, Jake Burns had admitted to three counts of conspiracy, wherein he had attempted to smuggle cannabis, phones, tobacco, and cannabis resin into the prison between July 7 and August 2 of the previous year.

During the same dates, Jake Burns’ spouse admitted to aiding and abetting him in transporting cannabis, cannabis resin, telephones, and tobacco into prisons. While Jake Burns accepted that there was an intended recipient of the contraband within the prisons, he pleaded guilty on the grounds that he did not conspire with his wife, and she was not privy to his intentions.

Multiple prison contraband deliveries

According to Neil Bisarya, the prosecutor, McEllin had driven Burns to the vicinity of HMP Hindley and HMP Liverpool on multiple occasions, enabling him to operate the drone and deliver contraband into the prisons. Bisarya noted that prison staff at HMP Liverpool had spotted a drone on three separate occasions – July 11th, 19th, and 31st. Police officers had uncovered video footage from July 11th and 19th from a drone seized from the defendant’s address.

“Prison staff at HMP Hindley also have CCTV footage from the 31st July 2022 of a drone entering the restricted airspace.” Mr. Bisarya also referenced video footage taken by McEllin of her husband in which he unpacks a large white box matching the packaging of a DJI Mavic Air 2 drone and an orange drone landing pad.

In the video, McEllin said, “best flyer in Liverpool,” and Burns responded, “best flyer in the North West, we’re going to Wigan tonight.” Cell Site data for both defendants linked them to the visits to the prisons, and on July 4, they were spotted on CCTV cameras traveling between Liverpool and HMP Hindley twice in one day.

At approximately 11 pm on July 11th, the staff at HMP Liverpool witnessed a drone transporting goods to a prison wing. Video footage from the drone corroborated the sighting, showing the device returning from the jail. A week later, on July 19th, at almost twenty minutes to midnight, the prison staff at HMP Liverpool observed the drone entering the premises. Subsequently, the police received information that the drone had crashed nearby.

Police had observed McEllin’s vehicle multiple times in the proximity of the prison, with Burns occupying the passenger seat. On July 31, the drone was again observed by HMP Hindley prison staff delivering goods around 10 pm, and later, CCTV showed a drone entering the airspace and descending over a wing of a prison.

Search warrant executed at the residence

Following the execution of a warrant at their residence on August 1st, the couple was apprehended by the police. During the search, the officers discovered the drone in a bag located in the rear porch. Along with it, they found an array of items, including strings, plastic bags, about 40 circular clingfilm packages containing drugs, a smartphone wrapped in clingfilm with charging cables, more phones, cigarette papers, and 32 sim cards.

During the search of the residence, the police found:

  • three cling film-wrapped packages containing 36.8 grams of flowering head cannabis, with an estimated value of between £1,000 and £1,800, within the prison.
  • 13 clingfilm packages containing 230.1 grams of cannabis resin, with an approximate street value of £1,150.
  • four additional cling film-wrapped packages were uncovered, containing 68.3 grams of cannabis resin with a street value of £340.
  • 30.9 grams of nicotine, two phones, cables, 32 sim cards, and a quantity of cigarette papers. The total value of the cannabis resin inside the prison was estimated to be between £4,400 and £7,400. The iPhone found would be worth between £1,000 and £1,500 inside the prison, with an additional £50 for the charging cable.
  • 12 clingfilm packages containing a combined weight of 227.4 grams of nicotine.
  • 258 grams of tobacco, with an estimated prison value of £2,500.

Mr. Bisarya said the sim cards would fetch around £50 each in prison, so £1,600 in total, and the other Zanco mobile phone found would be between £300 and £500.

Defendant was previously convicted of a similar offense

Burns has 24 convictions for 54 offenses, including in 2017 when he was sentenced to 32 months imprisonment by Chester Crown Court for conspiracy to convey items, including cannabis, into prison. He was also previously sentenced to five years imprisonment in a young offenders institute for robbery.

His Honour Recorder Imran Shafi KC referred to the operation as “essentially a supermarket for prisoners”. During the sentencing, he stated: “You can clearly see the significant profits that can be made in this endeavor. You had all the necessary equipment and supplies to expand this conspiracy, and it is evident that if you had not been apprehended, it would have continued. This was a clever, systematic, efficient, and well-organized operation.”

Burns received a three-year prison sentence and expressed his gratitude to the judge with a thumbs-up gesture. McEllin was given a suspended 16-month prison sentence for two years, ordered to complete 20 days of rehabilitation, and a three-month curfew, which restricts her from leaving her home between 7 pm and 7 am.

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Information on a similar case in the U.S. can be found at Federal Grand Jury Indictment- USA vs Lo et al.