FOUR men and a woman were handed a combined prison sentence of nearly 20 years for their part in a £250,000 drugs conspiracy which flooded the streets of an East Lancashire town with hard drugs.

At Preston Crown Court, Thomas Ian Edwards, Connor Coulburn, Nathan Walker, Jacob Fisher and Naomi Winter were sentenced to time behind bars, while a 17-year-old boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was handed a three-year youth order and ordered to do 150 hours of unpaid work.

The defendants admitted supplying heroin and crack cocaine in Accrington between November 2018 and May 2019 following detection work by an undercover police officer.

Their involvement was part of a larger-scale organised drug operation for which five other people were charged.

Prosecuting, Jeremy Grout-Smith told the court: “Police launched Operation Sark in November 2018, during which the defendants were identified as being in control of a lucrative drugs conspiracy.

“The organised crime group was headed by someone the defendants referred to as ‘the big man’, who, along with others, controlled and co-ordinated the supply of drugs using specific mobile phones that were entrusted to his associates.

“The group targeted young, vulnerable males who were groomed to supply drugs on the streets of Accrington.

“Evidence on the defendants was obtained by an undercover police officer posing as a drug user, who purchased heroin and crack cocaine from them.

“In arranging the purchases, the officer spoke to defendants higher up the chain, including the ‘the big man’.

“When ‘the big man’ at one point stepped back from the group, he allowed others in Accrington to continue with the operation.”

The prosecution said more than 100 calls a day were made to ‘dealer lines’ named ‘Baz’ and ‘Taz’, with each call resulting in one average £10 deal of crack cocaine or heroin, yielding a profit of £2,000 a day, or £340,000 over the 170 days of the conspiracy.

The court heard that Fisher was entrusted with the Baz dealer line and between February and March 2019 made arrangements with the officer to buy drugs from various addresses in Accrington.

So involved was Fisher with the operation that he was also entrusted by ‘the big man’ to travel to Birmingham to collect drugs when supplies were running low.

Mr Grout-Smith said: “Fisher, who was 20 at the time, showed himself to be a trusted member of the organisation.

“He has previous convictions involving drugs and was on licence when he committed his part in this conspiracy.”

The court heard how Edwards shared responsibility for the Taz line with Coulburn and another man.

The prosecution stated evidence from the officer showed Edwards to be a street dealer, who paid ‘the big man' a certain amount of money each day, while Coulburn organised for youngsters, including the 17-year-old boy, to sell the drugs to customers in Kinder Egg toy cases.

Both Coulburn and Edwards were present during several drug exchanges at addresses on Richmond Hill Street, Spring Street and Marsden Street in Accrington, and at one point Edwards told the officer they had “got in some pure Colombian which was being washed out and waiting to dry, and had tried a few pipes last night which had a dramatic effect on the user.”

Edwards, who has previous convictions for violence and criminal damage, was later sacked by ‘the big man’ for not paying him the correct amount of money each day.

The court heard how Winter, who was Coulburn’s partner, and by her own admission an ‘experienced drug dealer’, was responsible for handling cash and bagging up the deals.

Mr Grout-Smith said: “She used to deal drugs in Plymouth and had been involved in dealing drugs for about 14 years and was very involved in the conspiracy.”

The court heard Walker, who has 39 convictions for 85 previous offences, including being on his third strike for drug dealing, had only been involved in supply on two specific occasions between February and March 2019.

These had also involved the 17-year-old, who was employed by ‘the big man’ for £50 and a promise of free cannabis.

All of the defendants, along with ‘the big man’ and several others, were arrested in November 2019, and initially denied any involvement, but changed their pleas to guilty at a pre-trial preparation hearing in February.

Judge Simon Medland said: “Class A drugs destroy people’s lives, their wellbeing and break up families.

“Accrington is a very small town, if it wasn’t for people like you, it may have escaped the amount of class As that were flooded into the more deprived areas.

“This was big business for an organised crime gang, around £250,000. None of you were anywhere near the top by any means, nevertheless, this was a significant operation.”

Coulburn, 25, of Dale Street, Bacup, and Edwards, 23, of Dickens Road, Chorley, were both sentenced to four years in prison.

Winter 29, of Thurston, Skelmersdale, who also pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs into Channings Wood prison in Newton Abbot, was sentenced to three years and 10 months.

Fisher, 21, of James Avenue, Great Harwood, was sentenced three-and-a-half years.

Walker, 29, of Milnshaw Lane, Accrington, who also pleaded guilty to three counts of burglary, was handed a four-year prison sentence.

At the time of them being charged, DS Martin Kennedy of East CID, said: “Organised crime, including the supply of drugs, blights our communities and puts ordinary law-abiding people at risk.

“I would urge our communities to work with us on identifying those responsible for this type of activity so that we can continue to keep our communities safe," he added.