A MAJOR operation into drug dealing has seen eighteen people arrested and a luxury Spanish villa - where a firearm was found - searched.

Officers launched Operation Florence following concerns raised by residents in Darwen about drug use by children in the area and that youngsters were being exploited to supply illegal substances after getting into debt.

As a result of the investigation, sixteen men and two women have now been charged with a raft of offences, including conspiracy to supply class A drugs and cannabis.

As part of the investigation warrants were executed at 25 addresses - including properties in Darwen, Blackburn and Northwitch – in May and June. As a result of searches at the properties, a large quantity of cocaine and cannabis was recovered, along with several vehicles and weapons including knives and a knuckle duster.

A villa linked to the investigation in Marbella was also searched by officers from the Spanish Police and a firearm was recovered.

Sgt Stu Peall, from the East Exploitation Team, said: “We are committed to tackling and disrupting drug-dealing activity and protecting vulnerable members of society.

“This operation was launched directly on the back of concerns raised by members of the public and I would encourage anyone concerned about criminal activity in their area to contact the police, knowing that we will act on that information and take the appropriate action.”

In the wake of the news, councillors in the area have said they are delighted an issue which has long blighted the town may be in the process of being resolved.

Paul Browne, ward councillors for Darwen East, said he first became aware of the issue when locals contacted him with their concerns - and has praised the police in the work they have done to make the town a safer place.

He said: “In certain parts of the town there have been massive concerns that this has been going on. I’ve made it very clear from the outset that the police needed to be informed so we could tackle the issue which has been crippling Darwen.

“Times are changing rapidly and people are more motivated by money than every before. Young people are more vulnerable to that than most and those who run these kinds of operations are well aware of that - they know they can prey on them.

“Once these people get hold of the youngsters and they get drugs into their systems they become hooked and that’s them resigned to the beginnings of a life of crime themselves.

“This is a real sign of the times. A lot of people don’t have much money and this is the quickest way they feel they can make a quick buck.

“I’m over the moon that the police have investigated the matter in the way they have - I can only hope that moving forward there will be some proper sentences passed down by judges to those responsible for this awful conduct.

“The police have worked hard to gather this evidence and work on the investigation and it would not be right for all that hard work to go to waste with them all getting a slap on the wrist once they end up in court.

“This will hopefully take 18 people linked to drugs off the streets of East Lancashire - not only making our towns safer but also I hope serving as a warning to those still out there operating.”

Following consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service 18 people have been charged as part of the investigation:

  • Usman Akhter, 36, Tariq Ajaib, 49, and Craig Hollins, 47, all of Sarah Street, Darwen, have each been charged with conspiracy to supply cocaine and conspiracy to supply cannabis.
  • Ardit Prahmnai, 21, of Astbury Close, Darwen; Liam Parker, 27, of Atlas Street, Darwen; Rory Compton, 29, of Ash Grove, Darwen; James Burrows, 21, of Plantation Road, Blackburn; Joseph Ginley, 35, of Milking Lane, Darwen; and Mark Jeal, 36, of Pilmuir Road, Blackburn, have all been charged with conspiracy to supply cocaine and conspiracy to supply cannabis.
  • Samuel Howard, 24, and Clare Lester, 24 - both of Duckworth Street, Darwen; Nico Moorby, 26, of Petre Wood Crescent, Langho; and Jack Beeke, 27, of Church Terrace, Darwen, are all charged with conspiracy to supply cannabis.
  • Gail Pilling, 42, of Derwent Road, Darwen, is charged with being concerned in the supply of cannabis; Michael Ryan Young, 29, of Alexandra Mews, Blackburn, is charged with conspiracy to supply cannabis; Ellis Gorman, 26, of Holden Fold, Darwen, is charged with conspiracy to supply cocaine; Augustine McDonagh, 32, of Bobbin Close, Accrington, is charged with conspiracy to commit damage and being concerned in the supply of cannabis; and Ben Stones, 21, of Cavendish Road, Darwen, has been charged with handling stolen goods.
  • A 21-year-old woman arrested on suspicion of importing cannabis and a 21-year-old woman arrested on suspicion of money laundering have been released under investigation.

Seventeen people appeared at Blackburn Magistrates Court earlier this month and Moorby was due to appear at the same court yesterday. 

Anyone with concerns about drug-dealing or any other criminal activity in their area can call police on 101 or 999 in an emergency. Alternatively, Crimestoppers can be contacted, in confidence, on 0800 555111.