Birmingham heroin & cocaine gang bought guns to threaten rivals and customers
Danyal Aziz, Michael Earp & Nicole Rhone from Birmingham convicted of supplying cocaine and heroin
and live on Freeview channel 276
Three Birmingham drug dealers who purchased firearms to threaten competitors and customers have been convicted following a five week trial.
Gang leader Danyal Aziz, 28, from Stechford, was convicted of conspiring to supply class A drugs, possession of firearms and money laundering related offences; Michael Earp, 32, from Shard End was convicted of drugs and firearms offences; and Nicole Rhone, 29, from Bordesley Green was convicted of possession of a firearm.
The gang used a rented flat in Sapphire Heights, Hockley, as their base where large amounts of cash and drugs paraphernalia were found. Earp and an associate were captured on CCTV in the Sapphire Height’s carpark exchanging handguns, that they hoped to sell.
Aziz and his associates were arrested by the National Crime Agency in 2020. A Skorpion submachine gun loaded with live rounds of ammunition was found in an orange plastic carrier bag under Nicole Rhone’s bed at her home in Bordesley Green, where she was storing it for Aziz and, her cousin, Earp. Additional ammunition was found in her child’s bedroom.
CCTV from April 2020 showed Aziz and Earp retrieving and later returning an orange package from Rhone’s address. Messaging between the two men suggested that the orange package contained the gun, with Aziz telling Earp ‘Go grab the skorps load it up … with the fresh sweets’ (the sweets referring to ammunition).
Two of the defendants were using EncroChat encrypted mobile phones, to conduct their illicit enterprise of buying and selling class A drugs (heroin and cocaine). EncroChat messaging also confirmed that they acquired firearms to protect themselves from rival organised criminal gangs.
EncroChat users could set ‘burn-times’ for the messages they sent and received. In other words, messages would automatically delete after a set period. There was also a ‘panic wipe’ password by which a user could delete everything on their device. This could be triggered remotely, and these phones cannot be bought via high street stories and normal websites.
How EncroChat helped investigators uncover the gang
The investigation into these defendants relied significantly on EncroChat communications. This enabled the National Crime Agency to read some of the messages that had been sent or received by Aziz and Earp and an associate. Thereafter, the National Crime Agency commenced an investigation, leading to the arrest of Aziz and associates.
In one of the messages, Aziz, going by the handle Lushmace, discusses a gun and bullets in his possession and using it against customers who owe him money. He said: “I got 50 sweets [bullets] on me and strap [gun] by my yard, I feel like doing a madness right now.”
NCA investigators also found photos of bullets compatible with a Skorpion sub-machine gun on Aziz’s handset and messages sent later said he was ‘going to get the SK tuned up’ - a reference to a Skorpion. Earp was also seen on CCTV collecting three pistols in Birmingham.
In others, he discussed drugs and the money he was making. Officers evidenced him messaging criminal associates about buying as many kilos of cocaine as he could, in anticipation of the price rising due to Covid lockdown restrictions.
In another message, Lushmace said ‘Check this I made 200k payment 2 days ago’, indicating the amount of money the gang was making from their criminal enterprise. They also shared pictures of ‘tops’, slang for cocaine, and ‘turk’, slang for heroin.
NCA officers found that Aziz was in charge of the group and directed Earp, known as Kneetown, to deliver drugs money and requested regular updates as to his stocks of drugs.
Earp’s vehicle was searched and NCA officers discovered a large void behind the radio unit where airbags should have been stored. It had been lined with silver tape and metal was welded in place to the back of the radio to secure it. The area was swabbed and traces of cocaine was found.
The group were found guilty of drugs and firearms offences at Birmingham Crown Court after a five week trial yesterday (1 June). They will be sentenced at a later date.
What the National Crime Agency said about Operation Venetic
NCA Branch Commander Mick Pope said: “This was a dangerous criminal organisation heavily involved in bringing class A drugs in from abroad and supplying them in Birmingham and throughout the UK.
“They also acquired deadly firearms to scare and intimidate competitors and customers alike, but which of course presented a huge risk to any member of the public.
“It was clear from their Encrochat messages that Aziz was the ringleader of this group, controlling Earp and Rhone to carry out his drugs deliveries and hide weapons.
“This investigation has taken a high risk group off the streets and lethal weapons out of the hands of criminals. The NCA will continue to protect the public from the global trades in illegal drugs and firearms, which bring violence and intimidation to communities through the UK.”
What the Crown Prosecution Service said about the court case
Giorgina Venturella, CPS Specialist Prosecutor, said: “The evidence in this case painted a picture of an organised criminal gang deeply entrenched in a lawless lifestyle, and heavily involved in the sale of drugs.
“Firearms and ammunition had become everyday commodities – casually stashed under a child’s bed – used to intimidate and control as the group plied their illegal trade, posing an evident danger to local communities.
“The encrypted phone evidence was key in this case, showing Aziz directing operations from his handle ‘Lushmace’, and meant the NCA were able to piece together a detailed picture of the gang’s movements.
“Securing these convictions has taken a group of dangerous criminals off the streets of Birmingham and we will not hesitate to prosecute in cases like this. We will also now start proceedings to recover illegally gained money and criminal assets.”