Eight members of a drugs gang are now behind bars for their roles in bringing cocaine to the city.
They changed their mobile phones, some used their businesses as cover and one even got another man to pose as him working in a restaurant to hide his activity.
But none of that stopped the police from bringing them to justice.
The conspirators brought import-purity cocaine to Portsmouth for onward sale. The conspiracy stretched to London and Luton, where the drug was sourced.
Portsmouth Crown Court – where the gang were jailed for 100 years – heard the ‘chief executive officer’ of the gang was Agin Degani, an Albanian, who organised the supply from a prison cell in Wales.
Another unidentified Albanian man, codenamed Logistics by police, operated in Haringey, London, supplying the gang with cocaine.
Neither of those men were among those snared by police in the investigation.
During sentencing on Monday, Judge Sarah Munro QC said: ‘Agin Degani was serving a three-and-a-half year sentence for being concerned in the supply of heroin. He was caught in a car which in fact was hired by George Browning.’
She said the pair had been close friends and told Browning: ‘You and he set up an arrangement where his involvement in large scale trafficking of cocaine could be continued unhindered while he was incarcerated.’
Phone calls recorded in prison with Degani were used as evidence. He has since been deported to Albania.
You and he set up an arrangement where his involvement in large scale trafficking of cocaine could be continued unhindered while he was incarceratedJudge Sarah Munro QC
The judge added Browning ran day-to-day operations for Degani and was in very regular, often daily, contact with him.
Browning also used or was prepared to use his business to process cash from the drugs conspiracy.
But his defence at Portsmouth Crown Court said Browning may have ‘got a little bit carried away’ with his friendship with Degani.
Roofer Samuel McNamee – who pleaded guilty part-way through the trial – made substantial cash and spent it on holidays abroad and sending his children to private nursery.
He was convinced to switch cocaine supplier from a person known as ‘little one’ to Degani by father-of-two Browning. In court McNamee’s barrister, Rebecca Austin, said he had been going through bankrupty and had debts of around £45,000.
Ms Austin said he was running Southern Roofing, was unable to get credit and instead got loans from a ‘source’ who was later jailed due to drug offences.
‘He got into this because of his cocaine habit and the debt he needed to fulfill,’ she said.
Ms Austin said McNamee had been brought into the conspiracy in January 2014.
Addressing McNamee, Judge Munro said: ‘You, Samuel McNamee, were the lynchpin, you were the operations manager of this conspiracy.
‘You sourced and collected the cocaine from Luton and London or arranged for others, Kevin Williams and Matthew Hallett, to do so.
‘You collected drug debts from those in Portsmouth and elsewhere.’
The judge said McNamee, Browning and brothers Lorenc Ymeraj and Skender Ymeraj all played ‘leading roles’ in the ring.
The court heard dad-of-two Lorenc Ymeraj, an Albanian, kept in the background of the conspiracy.
He even claimed to be working as a chef in a Southampton restaurant, but this work was done by someone else posing as him.
‘It’s hard on the evidence to identify precisely what you did, but whatever it was it was at a high level,’ the judge told him.
She added: ‘You were careful to avoid any communication with any others except your brother.’
And she said: ‘In truth you may be more culpable.’
His brother, Skender Ymeraj, lived a ‘cash-rich lifestyle’ with expensive holidays abroad.
He had close links to Albanians organising the supply of drugs, the judge said.
Hallett, who the judge said was McNamee’s ‘right-hand man’, was actively involved in trips to London and Luton.
His firm with McNamee was run ‘at least partly as a cover’, the judge said.
The amount of cocaine trafficked into Portsmouth by the gang and the sums of cash are not fully known.
But the one major seizure was when Kevin Williams received half-a-kilogram of cocaine at 90 per cent purity worth £90,000 from Skender Ymeraj on May 23 last year.
Williams’ defence in court said he was involved ‘for a few weeks’ and was a courier.
The judge said: ‘The amount of cocaine in this case is hard, impossible, to precisely quantify.
‘The starting point is the evidence relating to the trips to London and Luton when import-quality cocaine was sourced in at least half-kilo amounts.’
Barnaby Shaw, prosecuting, said the half-kilogram could have been obtained three times a month.
Dad-of-three Daniel Paterson was caught with McNamee with 3oz of cocaine and just under £10,000 in cash.
The judge said: ‘You were undoubtedly motivated by financial advantage and had some awareness of the scale of this conspiracy.
‘It’s at least arguable that your involvement was for a short time.’
McNamee was also linked to Stacey Smith, who sourced huge quantities of Benzocaine for a cutting agent.
Smith has previous convictions including conspiracy to supply MDMA. He got the Benzocaine from China.
Judge Munro said: ‘You saw a market for supplying Benzocaine.’
She added not all of that was going to the conspiracy and said: ‘I’m quite satisfied that you were supplying regular and significant quantities to the conspiracy via Samuel McNamee and Benzocaine was used to cut the import-quality cocaine at a still high purity.’
No evidence was offered against Jonathan Palmer, 38, of Highgate Road, Copnor, and a verdict of not guilty was recorded.
Robert Hoadley, 34, of East Shore Way, Milton, pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of class A cocaine. He was not guilty of the conspiracy.
That related to 10.8g of cocaine at 73 per cent purity in a drink can seized by police on October 14 last year.
He was fined £500 – the amount he paid for the drugs.
Adam Derry, 33, of Raymond Road, Paulsgrove, and Simon Smith, 45, of Wymering Lane, Wymering, accused in the conspiracy, were found not guilty.
OFFICERS WERE ‘DEDICATED AND TENACIOUS’
AROUND 100 police officers worked to bring down the ring.
Investigating officer Detective Constable Phil Attwood said a core team of five officers took the case through court.
Surveillance was carried out between January and September in 2014. Prison phone call recordings were seized, mobile phones were interrogated, CCTV footage seized and billing records were obtained.
Det Con Attwood, of Hampshire’s serious and organised crime unit, said the 18-month investigation started when Agin Degani was arrested.
He said: ‘The evidence greatly developed over the summer of 2014, with evidence gathering then the strike day on October 14 which saw 24 search warrants executed.’
‘We worked in partnership with the council, with the CPS and prosecution counsel.
‘The investigation team worked extremely hard, long hours. They were dedicated and tenacious.’
THE DRUGS GANG
Those found guilty and their sentences:
- Daniel Paterson, 34, of Heritage Way, Gosport – 10 years. He has four court appearances for 10 offences.
- Kevin Williams, 45, of Willersley Close, Paulsgrove – nine years. He has 34 previous convictions for 88 offences.
- Lorenc Ymeraj, 31, of Lords Street, Landport – 14 years. He has three previous court appearances for two offences.
- Skender Ymeraj, 25, of Wingfield Street, Buckland – 14 years. He has no relevant convictions or cautions.
- Stacey Smith, 38, of Oriel Road, North End – 12 years. He has 16 convictions for 32 offences.
- Matthew Hallett, 34, of Anmore Road, Waterlooville – 12 years. He has two previous court appearances for two offences, including possession of MDMA.
- George Browning, 41, of Mill Road, Emsworth – 14 years. He has 21 court appearances for 50 offences.
- Samuel McNamee, 28, of Rockrose Way, Paulsgrove – 15 years. He has four previous convictions for six offences.
The two people found guilty of money laundering, who both had no previous, were:
- Luljeta Ymeraj, 30, of Lords Street, Landport, given a year suspended for 24 months, with supervision.
- Sunil Singh, 23, of Laburnum Grove, Portsmouth, received a six-month term suspended for two years with 150 hours’ unpaid work.