By Sandish Shoker
Two men who posed as key workers to move millions of pounds worth of cocaine in lockdown have been jailed.
Stephen Lees Rowe, 44, played a "leading role" in the international operation, collecting drugs coming from Europe and distributing them around the UK in 2020, a court heard.
He also recruited Matthew Whorlow who worked for the Highways Agency to give them an excuse to travel.
The judge called it a "sophisticated" and "significant enterprise".
On Friday, Harrow Crown Court heard Lees Rowe, of Hoylake Crescent in Bilborough, Nottingham, used top-secret messaging network, EncroChat to organise the transportation of the drugs.
Prosecuting, Lesley Bates said between March and June 2020 the pair supplied cocaine with a street value of more than £4.5m to organised criminal gangs in Nottinghamshire, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.
"The prosecution say he [Lees Rowe] had a leading role in this organisation… and substantial links to people in the chain," she said.
"He could accept or reject a job if it was not considered worthwhile, and was also able to recruit those with vehicles to help them during the lockdown."
Ms Bates said he enlisted 40-year-old Whorlow to provide a cover story for travelling around the country, when restrictions only allowed for essential travel.
She said on one occasion they met co-conspirators at Chieveley motorway services, near Newbury, Berkshire to exchange boxes of drugs.
Then in May they met at a coned-off layby in Bagshot, Surrey using Whorlow's flat-bed truck as a decoy.
The court heard on 1 June the pair used the same ruse to collect 21kgs of drugs from a contact at Kettering services, Northamptonshire.
Meanwhile, police were waiting to arrest them at a Nottingham flat used to store vast sums of drugs and cash.
Inside, officers found 78kg of cocaine, worth up to £2.7m, £90,0000 in cash hidden under floorboards and a secure EncroChat phone.
Judge Anupama Thompson said the operation had a "sophisticated nature" and added: "This was a significant enterprise of import.
"For a large part of this time the UK was in a state of lockdown and moving anything around was a risky business.
"However you got around this by recruiting and using individuals who had a legal reason for being on the roads."
She jailed Lees Rowe for 13 years and two months after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import and supply class A drugs and conspiracy to conceal and convert criminal property.
Whorlow, of Goldham Road in Strelley, Nottingham admitted the same charges and was sentenced to 10 years and nine months.
Det Insp Mark Adas said while most drug dealers prefer to keep a low profile, Lees Rowe and Whorlow "adopted the very bold approach" of driving around in a distinctive vehicle.
"It was clear that they saw this approach as a way to blend in during lockdown, when far fewer cars were on the road and tight restrictions were placed on individuals' freedoms," he said.
"As most people remained at home and thousands of others lost their lives, Lees Rowe and Whorlow used the pandemic as an opportunity to commit very serious criminal acts."
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Nottingham dealers moved drugs disguised as road workers in lockdown – BBC
By Sandish Shoker