A drugs kingpin who styled himself on a Breaking Bad character is among nine men who have been jailed for supplying amphetamines on an “industrial scale” across Britain.
The organised crime group was smashed after investigators were able to hack the encrypted messaging service used by criminals across the world, Encrochat, in 2020.
It allowed police to identify the key players in a conspiracy to produce and supply Class A and B drugs worth more than £6 million between April and June 2020.
The ringleaders included Anthony Saunderson, a 42-year-old originally from Formby, Merseyside, who used the moniker “jessie-pinkman” on Encrochat, in a nod to the character of the same name in the hit television show Breaking Bad.
The US series follows Jesse Pinkman, a small-time crystal meth dealer, and his former chemistry teacher, Walter White, as they rise to the top of the drug trade in New Mexico.
Merseyside Police, which carried out a joint investigation with North Wales Police, said Saunderson oversaw the production of amphetamine and bought and sold drugs on an “industrial scale”.
He was jailed for 35 years after being convicted at Liverpool Crown Court of a string of charges relating to the production and supply of Class A and Class B drugs, including cocaine and heroin, and conspiracy to sell guns.
The investigation was said to have found how the gang had distributed drugs across England, Scotland and Wales.
Messages extracted from Encrochat by the National Crime Agency (NCA) provided evidence linking the group to a premises near Chester and of drug dealing in the Merseyside town of Maghull.
Pictures shared by the gang on Encrochat - which criminals once favoured because they thought it provided maximum security - showed bags packed with white powder piled high on kitchen tops and drawers stuffed with bank notes.
North Wales Police found a drugs lab in Sealand, near the Welsh border with the Wirral, where amphetamines were produced “on a multi-million-pound commercial scale”.
The gang was also found to be making amphetamine for intravenous use, Merseyside Police said.
Paul Mount, a 38-year-old originally from Halsall, Lancs, and Darren Owens, a 48-year-old of Huyton, Merseyside, were said to be the “principle organisers” along with Saunderson.
“All were involved in the wholesale dealing of controlled drugs on a massive scale,” Merseyside Police said.
Mount was involved in amphetamine production but had also been in discussions about the supply of “huge quantities” of cocaine and heroin to Scotland, according to the force.
He had access to a Glock pistol and ammunition during the conspiracy, police said.
Mount was jailed for 34 years after being convicted of a string of drug-related charges at Liverpool Crown Court, as well as conspiracy to acquire or purchase a prohibited weapon.
Owens - who had the Encrochat username “PierreWhite” and “Paperjaguar” - was involved in the production of amphetamine and provided vans to help move drugs for Saunderson and Mount.
He was jailed for 24 years for a string of drug-related charges at Liverpool Crown Court, Merseyside Police said.
Det Insp Paul McVeigh, of Merseyside Police, said: “This was a huge operation which saw vast quantities of Class A and B drugs produced and distributed across the whole of Great Britain on an industrial scale.
“Our operation, working alongside our colleagues in North Wales, began in the spring of 2020 following the receipt of Encrochat material gathered by the National Crime Agency.
“Thanks to the investigative work of both forces nine people have now been sentenced to over 187 years behind bars.
“Each of those sentenced took part in the business for at least significant financial gain and although they all played different roles and were involved to differing degrees, they were all aware of the scale of the operation.”
Also sentenced for their roles in the conspiracy were Michael Pope, a 35-year-old from Maghull, who was jailed for 17-and-a-half years for a string of drug offences; Kieran Hartley, 32, of Moss Side, Liverpool, who was jailed for 23 years for supplying and producing drugs; Lee Eccles, 33, of Maghull, who was jailed for more than eight years for conspiracy to supply Class B drugs; David Kelly, 44, of Maghull, who was jailed for more than 15 years for drugs-related offences; Stefon Beeby, 42, formerly of Halifax, West Yorks, who was jailed for 15-and-a-half years for drugs-related offences; and Stephen Shearwood, 38, of Maghull, who was jailed for more than 14 years for conspiracy to produce and supply drugs.