A FORMER Southend United football player has been jailed along with other ringleaders of a gang that smuggled cocaine across Essex.
Stuart Thurgood was one of eight ringleaders of an organised crime group in Essex which supplied drugs to county lines gangs have been jailed for a combined total of more than 40 years.
The 39-year-old of Morley Grove, Harlow, served as the right hand man of the gang’s leader.
He played for Southend United between 2001 and 2003, with various stints at Grays Athletic and East Thurrock United.
Thurgood was under the command of Christopher Golding, who headed up the network, which smuggled cocaine in containers through ports before selling it on to gangs supplying west Essex, Hertfordshire, London and Suffolk.
The operation was estimated to have earned them at least £500,000 which was stashed in Bitcoin or laundered through the pub Golding ran as a licensee.
Officers started an investigation into the group after members of the public reported seeing drug dealing taking place.
Two of the group members, Lee Collett and Lee Wilkinson, were arrested in May 2018.
As officers progressed their enquiries, they began identifying main players higher up the chain, eventually leading them to Golding.
Then last year an international operation – led in the UK by the National Crime Agency – saw the takedown of the encrypted communications platform EncroChat.
The secure mobile phone instant messaging was primarily used by criminals to co-ordinate and plan criminal activities including the distribution of illicit commodities and money laundering.
Messages obtained from EncroChat provided further evidence of the scale of the drugs operation being run by Golding and dated back to Christmas Day 2017.
He was arranging bulk sales of cocaine – charging £41,000 for a kilogram.
It was also evident he was using Bitcoin as a form of payment and was laundering money through the crypto currency.
Financial investigators, working with colleagues from the Eastern Region Serious Operations Unit, identified he had transferred more than £120,000 into Bitcoin accounts in 2020.
Detective Chief Inspector Lewis Basford, of the Serious Violence Unit, said: “The extra evidence secured from the EncroChat messages was the final nail in the coffin for Golding and his key associates.
“With this information and the wealth of evidence officers had already secured throughout this complex investigation, they had nowhere to hide and no option but to plead guilty at court.”
More than £100,000 in cash, assets and weapons, as well as £120,000 worth of cocaine were seized during dawn raids in Harlow and Suffolk last year.
Thurgood, along with Golding, 39 of Hart Road, Harlow, were among eight men who admitted conspiracy to supply a class A drug when they appeared at Chelmsford Crown Court on 24 March.
The others were:
- Christopher Lee Collett, 37, of Perry Spring, Harlow
- Robert Aldred, 30, of Pittmans Field, Harlow
- Agirdas Gustaitis, 31, of Meadow Court, Harlow
- David Wilkinson, 36, of Primrose Hill, Haverhill
- Lee Wilkinson, 38, of Parsonage, Leys, Harlow
- Adam Dalby, 36, of Wedgwood Drive, Harlow
Stuart Thurgood was Golding’s right-hand man in the criminal network. Brothers Lee and David Wilkinson oversaw the day-to-day running of the drugs line.
All eight men were sentenced yesterday and today May at Chelmsford Crown Court:
- Golding was given a 12-year prison sentence
- Thurgood was handed eight years in jail
- Lee Wilkinson was sentenced to six years and eight months
- Adam Dalby recieved a sentence of six years and eight months
- David Wilkinson was given four years and eight months in prison
- Robert Aldred was jailed for two years and eight months
- Algirdas Gustaitas was sentenced to two years and four months
- Lee Collet was given a two year sentence
At the sentencing hearing the judge praised the police investigation and the prosecutor in the case DCI Basford said: “What was unusual about this particular organised crime group was the key players were virtually all local to Harlow yet were supplying drugs gangs operating across London and three counties.
“The scale of their operation was huge and we estimate they were selling around 3kg of cocaine a week to about ten county lines gangs.
“The criminal network attempted to conceal their profits using cryptocurrency and tried to evade the notice of police by using encrypted messaging.
“But the tenacity of our specialist teams and colleagues in other law enforcement agencies ensured there was nowhere left for them to hide.
“Taking out Golding’s crime group is a major blow in drying up the supply to county lines gangs.
“We are targeting the chain at every level to dismantle drugs networks and make it even harder for them to operate.
“By taking out these links in the chain, we are also helping to protect vulnerable adults and children who these criminals exploit, groom and use for their own financial gain.”