FIVE men were sentenced to a total of 67 years for dealing more than 120kg of cocaine and money laundering in Brighton and Hove.

The men were sentenced at Hove Crown Court on Thursday following a two-year investigation. 

Leonard Aga, 35, self-employed, of Trotwood, Chigwell, Essex, had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply cocaine, money laundering, and possession of cocaine and false identity documents.

He was sentenced to 10 years and was described as having a “significant role” in the chain as a supplier.

Ilir Vakaj, 35, of Hampton Road, Teddington, Middlesex was given 16 years imprsionment. Ilirjan Hasanaj, 31, of Windermere Road, Bournemouth, was given 17 years. Both pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply cocaine, and money laundering.

Hysni Tafa, 46, a builder, of Lea Bank, Luton, and Kujedesi Pista, 36, of Cardigan Street, Luton, had previously pleaded guilty to continuing the conspiracy to supply cocaine, between July 2017 and March 2018 once Aga's activity had been disrupted by the police. Tafa and Pista have both now been sentenced to 12 years.

In sentencing the men, Judge Rennie said; “What lies at the heart of this case is an organised crime group run by you, Albanians. This was a disciplined well organised and sophisticated group of criminals.

"Your actions were vile and your trade despicable. Countless young lives were ruined just so that members of your criminal group could prosper. Unfortunately for you, you came to the attention of a group of detectives who themselves were disciplined well organised and sophisticated.

"On this occasion the police won and you lost, you are all going to prison for a substantial period of time”.

Nineteen other members of the group, whose role was street dealing, had previously been sentenced to terms of up to five and a half years, having also been convicted of supplying cocaine in relation to this case.

At the start of the trial the prosecution had offered no evidence against Aga's partner, Remezije Selaj, 31, of the same address. She had been charged with money laundering in relation to the proceeds of that conspiracy.

Detective Sergeant Paul Graham said; "Operation Chartwell was an investigation into an Albanian Organised Crime Group (OCG) operating two drug ‘county lines’ into Brighton and Hove.

"During the period of the initial investigation there were believed to be 319,465 separate occasions when the 'County' drug lines were contacted.

Those contacts represent approximately 6,397 separate customers in the Brighton and Hove area, equating to 155,838 separate cocaine deals. During the indictment period this Organised Crime Group (OCG) supplied 106-165kg of cocaine, netting them in excess of £6.5 million."

‘County lines’ are operated by individuals or groups who use mobile phone lines to extend their drug dealing business into new locations away from where they are living, usually urban areas often centred around good transport links.

Such an OCG controls a number of well-established mobile phone lines (in this case distinctive numbers that ended in 333 and 666 amongst others).

These are the numbers that customers would call to arrange their purchase of cocaine. Those two numbers were manned by OCG workers who remained in a fixed location answering calls/texts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This was the ‘call centre’.

Once an order was received those operating the 'call centre' would then use alternative mobile numbers to contact the ‘runner’ on the street.

The call centre directed the runner to the customer using the alternative number and confirmed the meeting location and amount to be supplied, and the price with the customer using the line.

The information passed to runner wais always limited, just a postcode of where to meet and once the runner has met the customer, the runner texted the call centre a number, e.g. 1, representing the number of deals that the dealer had supplied. The runner would then meet the customer and the drug deal would take place.

The mobile phones used in such enterprises are often inexpensive phones that are simply discarded as and when the need arises. The phones are unregistered ‘pay as you go’ numbers that just require topping up.

Thus the customer never had direct phone contact with the runner and vice versa. The customer would have been left with the impression that they were dealing with the call centre number and that it was that person they would be meeting.

Detective Sergeant Graham said: "The whole purpose of system was to avoid detection when inevitably runners are arrested dealing drugs. The phones are rarely seized as they are physically in a different location to the runner phone, in this case the Cranford area, near Heathrow.

"Whenever seized and analysed by the police, the mobiles provided to runners rarely contain name or address details. This means that when runners are arrested the county line remains operational and another runner simply replaces the arrested 'runner'.

"But our in-depth and covert investigation tracked the conspiracy down and in July 2017 we executed a search warrant at the call centre address in Waye Avenue Cranford, a converted garden shed underneath the Heathrow flight path.

"The investigation showed that those running the drugs on the street on behalf of the OCG had entered the country illegally, usually through clandestine methods. Once put in contact with the OCG, they were supplied with a false identity, usually a driving licence, and a mobile phone.

"From there the runner was supplied a car that is registered to and insured in the false identity, Thus, if a runner is stop checked, on the face of their identity, car and insurance, they can seem to 'check out’. The runners also supplied drugs to sell on behalf of the OCG. However, all this is not provided free of charge and runners were often 'debt bonded' to the OCG and worked to pay off their debt.

These phones were recovered in Cranford.

"The runners would also be responsible for ‘topping up’ the County Line numbers. In this case the lines would frequently be topped up in Brighton. This provided an extra layer of distance between the front line and the call centre so that when police attempted to track who topped up the numbers, the location of the line was not revealed.

"The runners would periodically be re-supplied with drugs, and when such meetings took place the runner would give the supplier the money from the deals he/she had completed. In this case the method of supply to runners is strikingly similar across the network.

"Drugs would be wrapped in ‘deal wraps’ and presented to the runner in socks. Aga was one of the people that runners meet at various locations across Sussex. He supplied and resupplied runners with cocaine placed in socks that Aga purchased himself from supermarkets.

"Once in receipt of the runner’s money Aga and his partner Selaj would send some of the money received back to Albania (amongst other countries) using electronic money transfer houses.

"When Aga and others were arrested in July 2017 the ‘333’ and ‘666’ numbers were deactivated and we seized the controlling handsets from the call centre in Hounslow.

"Days later, however, the numbers were operational once more as drug lines and the enterprise was once again supplying cocaine to users in Sussex. Our investigation to uncover who was responsible and permanently close the lines was commenced as Operation Baku.

"Telecommunication evidence showed that the reactivated lines were being operated from an address in Luton by Tafa and Pista, and later moved to another one in the same town, and the volume of calls and deals approached that seen in July 2017 when we terminated the Hounslow operation.

"During the course of the ‘porting’ of the numbers the group experienced difficulties with service providers temporarily closing numbers and also making mistakes when dealing with the porting of the numbers, but Tafa and Pista managed to resolve these.

"However in January 2018 we obtained a court Drug Dealing Telecommunications Restriction Order (DDTRO), the first force in the country to do so, in relation to the ‘333’ and ‘666’ numbers which were then closed down. We saw that clients were advised of new contact numbers via a text message and that Tafa paid for topups to allow those messages to be sent.

"In March 2018 we arrested Pista at the Luton 'call centre' in possession of several phones and sim cards. The sim cards from the original County Lines system, shut down by the DDTRO, were recovered from this address together with the information relating to the ownership and control of one of those lines. Also recovered were the new ‘replacement’ drug line numbers, and controlling handsets.

"The arrest of Tafa followed in April 2018, after he returned to the UK from Albania. When we searched his address we found a further phone (ending in 555) and the packaging for the 888 replacement sim card, together with other phone handsets used to contact service providers when the OCG experienced problems with the porting of the numbers and one of the handsets previously used to operate the 333 line.

"Our investigation, spanning two years, has now completely dismantled a complex drug dealing operation by an organised crime group, which was supplying cocaine on a daily basis in Brighton and Hove.

"Of course this success does not mean the end of such criminal activity in the city but we continue to put organised crime on the back foot, and send them the message that we will continue to go after them and prevent them from becoming established in our communities.

"More than £100,000 cash and property has already been seized, together with some €50,000. But the investigation continues, as we are currently compiling a case for proceedings against the defendants for court orders under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) to confiscate those amounts and further criminal assets that we are seeking to identify."