Stevenage drug gang member jailed for 12 years

A STEVENAGE man who police say was a ‘major player’ in an organised crime gang has today (Wednesday) been jailed for 12 years.

Mark Birch, of Chatsworth Court, had earlier pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to supply Class A drugs - cocaine and diamorphine.

The 24-year-old was sentenced at Luton Crown Court alongside six other gang members following an 18-month-long investigation by detectives.

The seven were sentenced to a collective total of 45 years.

Operation Paddle began in spring 2009 with intelligence that Birch was sourcing wholesale quantities of drugs and controlled the distribution and receipt of proceeds.

He was helped by younger brother, Michael Birch of Rush Court in Leighton Buzzard, his cousin, Cliveroy Birch of Park Street in Luton, and other friends who controlled specific areas of the “business”.

Officers posed as drug users buying cocaine and heroin from the lower end of the chain, tracking how phone lines used for ordering drugs linked the street dealers back to Mark Birch and his associates.

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Based mostly at Lewsey Farm and Hockwell Ring, the gang, which called itself ‘Workout’, supplied drugs in Luton and Leighton Buzzard.

Arrests were made when more than 400 officers, many armed, raided 23 properties in Stevenage, Luton, Milton Keynes and Leghton Buzzard on September 10 last year.

So many officers were involved because gang members were known to carry weapons, and one member, Niall McErlane of Moorland Gardens in Luton, was suspected of shooting Houghton Regis resident Richard Long in a row about drugs days before the raid.

McErlane was later jailed for 26 years for murder, and the CPS decided not to proceed with the drugs charges against him.

During the raids, a firearm, drugs, cash, and dangerous chemicals thought to be used in the production of drugs, were found.

Det Insp Ged McCarthy, who led Operation Paddle, said: “It takes many months to put together an operation of this nature, so sometimes it can appear as if the police are not aware of what is going on or not able to do anything about it. These results show that we can help.

“Other crime groups are being investigated by us at the moment and these people are certainly not untouchable – they are just criminals who prey on the weak and deal in misery.”

His Honour Judge Foster commended the bravery of the undercover officers who carried out the test purchase operation.