Six men behind one of the biggest MDMA smuggling operations in the UK have been jailed after a picture of a dog sent by one of the gang members linked him to the operation.
A plot to smuggle £44m worth of drugs to Australia inside an excavator machine was smashed when Danny Brown, 55, accidentally sent a photo of his pet on encrypted network EncroChat.
The picture, spotted by National Crime Agency (NCA) investigators, showed his partner’s phone number on his French bulldog's tag.
The gang was jailed for a combined total of 140 years after investigators also spotted reflections of two other members in images they shared on the encrypted network.
Brown, 55, Stefan Baldauf, 62, Tony Borg, 45, Peter Murray, 59, Philip Lawson, 61, and Leon Reilly, 50, were sentenced at Kingston-upon-Thames Crown Court on 6 December 2022 for their involvement in the conspiracy to smuggle almost half a tonne of MDMA.
Between June 2019 and June 2020, Brown and Baldauf, oversaw the operation to export the Class A controlled drugs concealed in the lead-lined arm of an excavator.
The UK-based conspirators arranged the shipment and the sale at auction of the excavator to the purchasers of the drugs in Australia.
Borg accepted delivery of the excavator into a warehouse in Grays, Essex.
Murray then delivered the drugs to the same warehouse, where Lawson later cut open the excavator arm and concealed 210 bags of MDMA inside.
After sealing the excavator arm, the machine was moved to Southampton Docks, then shipped to Australia.
But Australian customs authorities had already discovered the drugs, removed them from the excavator and sent the machine on empty.
Reilly exchanged numerous encrypted EncroChat messages with Brown and Baldauf to update them on the machine’s progress and passage through Australia.
Lawson then provided a detailed diagram showing where the MDMA was hidden and what tools would be needed to access the drugs.
Struggling to find the MDMA, the men in Australia responded with a picture of a hollow arm and told Brown the machine was empty.
Brown and his accomplices provided even more detailed explanations of where the drugs were concealed, but soon realised they had been taken.
In June 2020, Brown and Baldauf were arrested by National Crime Agency officers, and further investigation led to the remaining defendants’ arrests in the following months.
Specialist prosecutor for the CPS, Colette Moore, said: “The use of encrypted EncroChat phones failed to prevent the organised criminals being identified and prosecuted.
“In fact, the messages established, beyond doubt, that these men were responsible for the drug export to Australia. The more they used them, the deeper the incriminating hole they dug for themselves.”