A criminal gang that employed a drone to smuggle prohibited items into a prison in Cheshire has been sentenced to a combined imprisonment of over 30 years.

From August to December 2020, the criminal gang orchestrated over 20 drone flights above the premises of HMP Risley in Warrington. These flights were utilized to transport packages containing illicit substances, such as illegal drugs, and unauthorized items like mobile phones and SIM cards. The extensive operation conducted by the gang exemplifies the seriousness of their criminal activities and the significant breach of security at the prison.

Gang members indicted in UK drone smuggling scheme

The five men and two women responsible for the activity appeared at Liverpool Crown Court on Friday, 30 June, where they were sentenced to the following:

  • Thurlus Smith, 33, of Waldrons Lane, Crewe, conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs and list B articles into a prison – 6 years and one month.
  • Matthew Cooke, 33, of Grove Court, Alsager, conspiracy to supply class B drugs and list B articles into a prison -2 years, five months.
  • Katie Bickerton, 22, of Barnabas Avenue, Crewe, conspiracy to supply list B articles into prison and possessing criminal property – 19 months, 2-year suspended sentence.
  • Daniel Johnson, 28, of Woodside Avenue, Alsager, conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs and list B articles into prison and possessing criminal property – 6 years, five months.
  • Nicole Sims, 27, of Lawton Road, Alsager, possessing criminal property – 9 months.
  • Charlie Swann, 26, of Rumford Street, Liverpool, conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs and list B articles into a prison – 7 years, ten months.
  •  Aaron Dodd, 31, of HMP Altcourse, Liverpool, conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs and list B articles into a prison – 7 years, ten months.

Drone smuggling scheme investigation details

Following multiple sightings of drones within the prison premises over several weeks, prison officers initiated an investigation into the gang behind these activities. Collaborating closely, Cheshire Police and HMP Risley conducted a thorough joint investigation, uncovering an organized crime group that operated inside and outside the prison. The gathered evidence indicated that Swann and Dodd, who were inmates during that period, were actively involved in collecting the drone-delivered packages and selling illicit items within the prison. The investigation shed light on the extent of their involvement in the criminal enterprise.

The remaining gang members had various roles, including procuring and distributing the items, operating the drone flights into the prison, and overseeing payments amounting to tens of thousands of pounds. According to the drug expert witness, the estimated value of the drugs involved ranged from £347,000 to £1.7 million (or “in the hundreds of thousands of pounds”). This assessment underscores the substantial scale of the illicit drug trade within the operation.

A drone flight was reported over the prison at around 10.26 pm on Monday, 28 September 2020. The following day prison officers conducted a cell search, where a package was located containing heroin, cannabis, two iPhones, and nine SIM cards.

Following the initial search, the cell of Charlie Swann was also searched, and four micro mobile phones were seized.

The gang’s activity increased on Thursday, 15 October 2020, with yet another drone sighted within the prison’s walls.

CCTV taken from the time shows the drone with a package suspended underneath it, hovering outside a cell window before a prisoner was seen taking possession of the package through his cell window, and the drone then disappears.

A final drone was spotted over C wing at HMP Risley on Monday, 28th December 2020. This drone also had a package suspended from underneath it. Using a broom handle, a prisoner was then viewed on CCTV guiding the package into their cell window.

For more about airspace awareness at prisons, see Agent-Based Modeling for Low-cost Counter-UAS Protocol in Prisons

The drone then left the area and reappeared 20 minutes later with another package, and the prisoner was again seen using the broom to get the package into his cell.

After an extensive investigation, law enforcement officers executed search warrants at the residences of Cooke, Bickerton, Sims, Smith, and Johnson in Crewe and Alsager on 13 January 2023. During the searches, authorities seized several items, including class A and B drugs, a significant amount of cash, mobile phones, and four drones.

Furthermore, investigators uncovered evidence of financial transactions conducted by Bickerton, Sims, Cooke, Smith, and Johnson on behalf of the organized crime group (OCG). These transactions amounted to tens of thousands of pounds, highlighting the substantial financial activities associated with the criminal enterprise.

After gathering a catalog of evidence, all seven defendants were charged with and pleaded guilty to their involvement in the case.

Following the sentencing Detective Sergeant Mark Naylor, of Cheshire Police Serious and Organised Crime Unit said:

“This is a fantastic result, not only have we removed seven members of a dangerous organized crime group, but we have stopped the supply of a large quantity of class A and B drugs and other prohibited items circulating within our prisons. This result could not have been achieved without the support of officers at HMP Risley, without their cooperation, we would not have been able to bring these individuals to face justice. While this gang is behind bars, our fight against illegal drugs and organized crime continues and as part of this, we need support from local residents. We need the public to be our eyes and ears and to come forward with information regarding drug dealing in the areas they live in.”

See alsoIndictment in Alleged Drone Prison Smuggling Scheme

YouTube Video- Drone gang who flew drugs and money into Warrington prison jailed (Video Credit: Cheshire Police YouTube Channel)

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