A police investigation has resulted in the dismantling of a complex drugs ring which was distributing heroin and cocaine across Sussex, South East London and Kent.
It led to convictions of 16 people, including two ringleaders, who were convicted on Friday (February 23) and sentenced at Hove Crown Court to life imprisonment for conspiracy to murder.
Police said Leo Ellis, from Hastings, and his associate Jason Caswell acted as main drug dealers supplying cocaine, and in Ellis’s case heroin too, across East Sussex and Kent.
They ran a drugs ring supplying the area with illegal substances from their suppliers.
However the work of Sussex Police detectives identified this ring and the locations from where they ran their illegal operation.
In a succession of major raids and arrests officers seized a large amount of drugs and cash over several months in 2015 and 2016.
Because of the seizures by February 2016, Ellis and Caswell owed their dealers in excess of £850,000.
Police said their inability to repay the debts was then worsened by further seizures of £92,475 cash and two kilos of cocaine were made within three days that month.
In total £1.4million in Class A drugs and £100,000 cash were seized by police officers working closely with the National Crime Agency.
Detectives continued their surveillance on them, as Ellis and Caswell came under increasing pressure to compensate their suppliers for the seizures.
They used mobile phones to send emails discussing what had happened and what they were going to do about it.
Police said detailed examination of mobile phones identified vitally important messages between Ellis and Caswell in which they talk about arranging the murders.
Recordings of conversations recorded by police at Ellis’s address feature one in which he boasted of having acquired guns and ammunition from Eastern Europe.
In another recording he discussed with Caswell plans to recruit someone to carry out the killings.
Detectives were able to work out that Ellis and Caswell had decided to eliminate their debts by murdering the people they owed money to rather than pay back the £1.4m in drugs and cash that police had seized.
Police said Ellis and Caswell planned together and Ellis arranged for another associate, Jamie Winchester, to supply a weapon; a TEC-9 style 9mm automatic sub-machine gun pistol with a silencer and ammunition.
A surveillance photo captured Winchester cycling away from a drop-off point in Cinque Ports Way, Hastings, having supplied the gun which had been in a bag strapped to his back on March 1, 2016.
Police officers were able to track their movements and the gun and ammunition were seized before any murders could take place.
After a complex surveillance operation two arrests were made, of Anthony Hearn and a woman, who was not charged with any offences, in Hastings town centre, on the afternoon of March 1, 2016, and the weapon and ammunition was seized in the footwell of their car in Wellington Square.
It was in a bag which contained a silencer and 16 rounds of ammunition, police said.
The gun was a fully working machine pistol capable of firing up to 900 rounds per minute.
After extensive enquiries officers raided Winchester’s home in Sandy Close, St Leonards, in December 2016 and arrested him.
Ellis and Caswell faced a 10-week trial together with three associates, Jamie Winchester, John Gardner and Simon Grant.
Police said Ellis and Caswell pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to murder and drugs supply offences. Caswell also pleaded not guilty to money laundering, and conspiracy to supply cocaine.
Winchester pleaded not guilty to supplying the gun and ammunition.
John Gardner pleaded not guilty to drug supply offences.
Simon Grant pleaded not guilty to drugs supply and money laundering offences.
On January 10 the jury returned verdicts and sentencing took place at Hove Crown Court on Friday.
Leo Alan Ellis, 24, unemployed, of Mountbatten Close, Hastings, was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 14 years for conspiracy to murder two people.
He was also given 10 years supplying a firearm; 14 years for each of the three counts of conspiracy to supply heroin; eight years for one count of conspiracy to supply cocaine and another two years for a second of the same offence and a further 16 years for another offence of conspiracy to supply cocaine; two years for money laundering.
He had pleaded guilty to the money laundering and cocaine offences before the trial.
Jason Caswell, 41, a road worker, of Credon Walk, London, SE16, was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 14 years for conspiracy to murder two men.
He was also sentenced to 14 years and 16 years for two counts of conspiracy to supply cocaine, and three years for money laundering.
Detective Chief Inspector Andy Bennett, of the Sussex Police Organised Crime Unit, said: “This operation has been a significant and extremely complex investigation into drug dealing and money laundering by Ellis in Sussex and Caswell in Kent.
“Both Ellis and Caswell had autonomy over the drugs supply in their home areas and both became equally indebted to their suppliers. Our interventions had a major impact on their criminality and placed significant pressure on their mounting debts.
“They believed their only way out of this situation was to plan on killing their suppliers, clearly showing the extreme and drastic action those in the drugs world are willing to take.
“Leo Ellis’s dwindling position within the drugs ring became clear to us as we learned from our investigation of his now huge debts and inability or unwillingness to repay them despite pressure to do so.
“However we had the group under surveillance and their intentions were confirmed by emails that we were able to access, and by covert recordings of conversations at Ellis’s home.
“This has been a major operation for my team, working with the close co-operation and support of the National Crime Agency (NCA) throughout, for which we are extremely grateful.
“It shows the determination of law enforcement at both national and force level to work successfully together, in order to effectively tackle organised crime to protect the public from dangerous criminals such as these.
“The operation was the culminating phase of a major enquiry, and another example of the way in which, working with our law enforcement partners, we are constantly attacking organised crime and frustrating its efforts to become embedded in our communities.
“The devastating effect of drug misuse can have a much wider impact than simply on the person who takes them. It can corrode the quality of life for local communities and affect the health of those who are drawn into it.
“The fully working sub-machine gun we recovered was capable of firing up to 900 rounds per minute and was quite obviously a lethal weapon. Thankfully this has now been taken off our streets. It is vital that we continue to receive support from our communities so that we can effectively tackle crime, and take weapons like this off our streets.”
David Reynders, of the National Crime Agency, said: “Those sentenced today were dangerous drug traffickers intent on committing horrendous crimes. With access to an automatic weapon, they posed a significant danger to ordinary members of the public, let alone their enemies.
“NCA officers worked in close collaboration with their colleagues in Sussex Police during this investigation, sharing resources and intelligence and providing specialist support to the operation.
“Through partnerships such as this one we and our law enforcement colleagues are protecting the public from serious and organised crime.”
Anthony Hearn had been arrested, with a woman who was not later prosecuted for any related offences, for possessing the gun when it was found in the car in Hastings on March 1, 2016.
In July 2016 Hearn was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment after admitting possessing the firearm with intent to endanger life or enabling another to do so; possessing a prohibited automatic weapon; and possessing ammunition for a firearm without a certificate.
Six other men were also sentenced today for their part in the plot and associated drugs ring.
Jamie Peter Winchester, 25, unemployed, of Sandy Close, St Leonards, was found guilty and was sentenced to seven years for supplying the TEC-9 style 9mm automatic sub-machine gun pistol with a silencer, and three years for possessing ammunition.
John Gardner, 41, unemployed, of Egerton Road, Bexhill, was found guilty and was sentenced to six years for two offences of conspiracy to supply heroin and nine years for conspiracy to supply cocaine
Scott Gardner, 40, a carpet fitter, of Bexhill Road, St Leonards, was sentenced to 12 months having pleaded guilty before the trial to money laundering.
Wesley Long, 40, a tyre fitter, of Harold Road, Hastings, was sentenced to three years having admitted before the trial conspiracy to supply cocaine.
Simon Grant, 45, painter, of Sherriff Road, London NW6, was found not guilty of conspiracy to supply cocaine and money laundering.
He had also separately pleaded guilty to possession cannabis with intent to supply and was sentenced to five months suspended for 18 months.
Kenny Kelly, 37, unemployed, of Mahogany Close, London SE16: Steven Kelly, 48, unemployed, of Dominion Drive, London SE16 and Anthony Hearn, 45, unemployed, of no fixed address, were found not guilty of conspiracy to murder the two people.
James Dunham, 37, unemployed, of Roundhouse Cresent, Peacehaven, did not appear at court today to be sentenced for conspiracy to supply cocaine and will be sentenced at a later date.
Following Friday’s sentencing, Judge Christine Laing said to Ellis and Caswell: “You are utterly ruthless men who were ready to murder two people. Over £1 million worth of drugs and over £100,000 in cash was seized in the constant battle the scourge of class A drugs.”
She commended all the police officers and staff in the operation which she said had often involved working ‘very long hours’.
In separate proceedings in 2015 and 2016, seven other people had been sentenced as a result of the same police investigation associated with the extensive drugs ring.
At Hastings Magistrates Court Amelia Stock, 21, unemployed, of Mountbatten Close, Hastings, admitted offering to supply cannabis and was sentenced to 60 hours unpaid community work and a £60 fine. Kobie Lloyd, 19, unemployed, of London Road, Bexhill, admitted offering to supply cannabis and was given a 12-month sentence, suspended for 12 months sentence, and 100 hours unpaid community work.
Five men were convicted and sentenced at crown courts after acting as drugs runners for Ellis and Caswell.
Christopher Walsh, also known as Marsh, 31, then of Holmhurst Lane, Hastings, was given 56 months imprisonment at Oxford Crown Court for possession with intent to supply one kilo of heroin.
Luke Fitzgerald, 28, of Edinburgh Road, St Leonards, was given 40 months imprisonment at Oxford Crown Court for possession with intent to supply one kilo of heroin.
Carlton Meldrum, 25, of The Ridge, St Leonards, received a five-year sentence for possession of three kilos of heroin with intent to supply.
He was further sentenced at Snaresbrook Crown Court to seven years for a further offence of possession of three kilos of heroin with intent to supply.
Jed Ballard, 28, of Moor Lane, Westfield, near Hastings, was sentenced at Lewes Crown Court to 10 years for conspiracy to supply cocaine, possession with intent to supply MDMA, methoxetamine and amphetamine, possession of cannabis, money laundering and possessing an offensive weapon.
Pavel Ryslink, 21, then of Victoria Avenue, Hastings, was sentenced to four years for conspiracy to supply cocaine, and possession of heroin,
If anyone has any information or suspicions about drug dealing, or know of the whereabouts of illegally held firearms where they live or work, call Sussex Police on 101.