There seemed little to disturb the army of well-heeled shoppers floating round the Georgian colonnades, the bars and boutiques of Royal Tunbridge Wells this weekend – little, certainly, to cause fear let alone disgust.
So how to explain this to Theresa Dodd and her husband Charles, a retired solicitor: that three of their four privately educated daughters would become heroin addicts, reduced to the shame of begging on the streets of the genteel spa town, desperate for a fix?
Or that their drugs were bought and sold not in the pubs of South or Central London, but supplied by specialist dealers in Tunbridge Wells itself, supposedly the epitome of affluent respectability? It seems hardly credible.
But not to the Dodds or their daughters, because as they know all too well Tunbridge Wells has fallen victim to a new, meticulously planned and chilling expansion of the London drug trade that has so far gone barely reported.
This cold-eyed drive for fresh sales territory uses business cards, travelling salesmen, text-message marketing, and the sort of ‘introductory offers’ familiar to any supermarket shopper. The people behind it are metropolitan criminals greedy for the wallets of rich commuters – and they have seized wealthy market towns by the throat.
Mrs Dodd and her family are still reeling. ‘They are still at various stages of recovery,’ she says of her daughters. ‘Once you are an addict, it becomes a lifelong thing. They talk on the TV about drug problems in Brixton and in Brighton, but we have problems here.’
The sheer scale of those problems is laid out in police documents leaked to The Mail on Sunday.
Papers prepared for the Mayor of London’s office as recently as February reveal there are now a staggering 83 London gangs operating outside the capital. It is so rife that gangs from 19 of the 32 boroughs are involved, with those from Hackney, Brent, Greenwich and Newham known to be the most prolific. Compiled using data from the Metropolitan Police and other forces, the papers chart the rise of 14 ‘super gangs’ which are now active in more than one police area outside the capital.
London drug dealers are now so prolific, they are operating in every police area across Britain, but in particular a string of towns and cities within easy reach of London, including Oxford, Cambridge, Guildford, Epsom, Crawley, Chelmsford, Harlow, Salisbury, St Albans, Littlehampton and Bognor Regis.
In Tunbridge Wells, 74 of the 106 drugs-related arrests made by police since 2014 are for crimes perpetrated by London-based gangs.
Last month, Shay Hanchard – a 20-year-old drug dealer from Lewisham, South London, was jailed for four years and four months after pleading guilty to possessing heroin and crack cocaine that he intended to supply in the town. And last week, another London gang member, Bilihimin Omisola – nicknamed Tiny – was jailed for three years after he admitted that he had moved from London to the Wiltshire town of Trowbridge in order to sell Class A drugs.
They call it ‘cuckooing’ – the new supply method devised by the London drug gangs. Dealers will arrive in a new area and quickly identify a vulnerable local addict. Then they move in, commandeering that person’s home and sometimes, like a cuckoo, forcing them out.
The house or flat becomes a regional headquarters, often staffed by teenage gang members.
The next step is to establish a customer base by handing out business cards to prospective ‘clients’, and buying phone numbers of known drug users from local dealers.
They can then send mass marketing text messages, perhaps offering introductory buy-one-get-one-free deals to draw punters in. If business is good, further gang members could be dispatched, put up in bed and breakfast accommodation or hotels.
Dwayne was one of them.
Today, the former gang member is lounging on a cream faux leather sofa in his mother’s three-bedroom terrace house on a council estate in East London.
A pale-skinned black man of 18, with tufts of wispy stubble on his chin and dressed in a scruffy tracksuit, Dwayne – not his real name – describes earning £2,000 a day selling crack cocaine and heroin in small towns across Essex until six months ago.
‘When you go out of London, there’s more money,’ he explains. ‘I’d get guys dressed in suits driving smart cars who were my customers. Sometimes they’d buy from me more than once in a day.’
He frittered the money he earned on a ‘classic gangster lifestyle’ – expensive designer clothes and nights in clubs where he would spend thousands on champagne.
Dwayne never took the highly addictive Class A drugs he was selling. In fact, he reveals contempt for his former ‘crackhead’ clients when he speaks about them.
By the age of 13 he had been arrested several times for street muggings. By 14 he was earning up to £180 a day as a drug runner, moving around London by train and taxi, and by 15 he was firmly established as a street dealer.
Moving out to Essex was easy even though, as a black teenager, he stood out. ‘I used to dress like a tourist and sometimes even wore T-shirts with “I Love London” on them.’ In each town he befriended addicts by offering them free drugs and used their flats as a base. The addicts also helped him to circulate the gang’s mobile phone number among other users, and when they called Dwayne, he would offer to deliver his goods to their door or arrange to meet them in different locations to stay a step ahead of police.
Rival dealers were usually not a problem and sometimes Dwayne could buy them off by offering to let them sell his gang’s drugs.
‘The biggest threat was from the crackheads,’ he said. ‘If they didn’t have the money they could get real crazy if you wouldn’t give them the drugs. They would kill for a fix.
‘A friend of mine was killed by an addict. He stabbed him in the head.’
Partly because of that incident, Dwayne put that life behind him and is training to become a plumber.
A separate report published last August by the National Crime Agency, Britain’s equivalent of the FBI, revealed that the seven police forces closest to London had identified 827 London-based criminals who were selling drugs in their areas.
The gangs are drawn to the regions by what they see as rich and easy pickings. There is a ready supply of wealthy customers, with the NCA report saying more than half of the towns targeted could be described as ‘middle-class or affluent’.
‘Above all, it is the perception of an easy market space that draws [gangs] to these locations,’ the report warned.
It also found that criminal rivals already existing in the towns are easily subdued by the London gangs who routinely use much greater levels of violence. The report stated: ‘The gangs use children on the front line because they are “inexpensive, easily controlled and less likely to be detected by the police”.’
Last month, five men were jailed over the death of a man in Basildon, Essex, who was stabbed in a row between rival London gangs.
Some of the gangs from South London and in Harlesden, North-West London, have access to Mac 10 machine-guns, and experts are worried that clashes between such groups will soon begin happening in provincial towns.
Tony Saggers, head of drugs threat and intelligence at the NCA, said the gangs’ best weapon, however, is the mobile phone.
‘What sits at the heart of this is the ability to buy pay-as-you-go phones virtually, if not completely, anonymously to run a criminal business and cause enormous human misery,’ he says.
‘As a consequence we have seen an increase in the misery of drug addiction and the exploitation of vulnerable young people who are coerced and enlisted into helping these gangs.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest concentration is in the areas closest to the capital and in at least ten counties – including Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and sweeping from Norfolk down to the South Coast and around to Hampshire. There are between 15 and 50 different London street gangs supplying cocaine, crack and heroin.
In the West Country there are between 11 and 14 of the gangs in each county.
And groups from East London supply skunk cannabis to students at Oxford and Cambridge.
One leader from the Custom House gang in East London, who was caught with half a kilo of crack cocaine in a police raid, was found to have booked 240 hotel rooms in a string of towns along the east coast.
‘These kids are groomed and coerced into working with the gangs,’ said Sheldon Thomas, a former gang member who now runs Gangsline, a charity which helps young people escape their criminal life. The charity also delivers hard-hitting seminars in schools and prisons to youngsters at risk.
‘The gangs are firmly entrenched in many schools and they are expanding their influence through videos which these kids watch on YouTube, flaunting an image of apparent success. But it’s all fake and these kids face a bleak future if they get involved.
‘In the long run there are only two outcomes for them: they will end up either dead or in prison.’
Mr Thomas said the school visits are costly but that Government cutbacks are making them more difficult.
His charity has worked with 6,000 gang members from 150 London estates. He said that nearly four in five of the teenagers have no connection with their fathers.
THE police are certainly attempting to act against the gangs. Operation Holdcroft is a joint effort to share intelligence of the Metropolitan Police, British Transport Police and forces in Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Thames Valley.
One method is to charge gang leaders running networks of young people with human trafficking, which attracts tougher sentences.
Last summer, Kent Police launched Operation Jupiter, which focuses on organised drugs gangs and has led to 209 arrests for offences including drug supply, human trafficking and burglary. But privately, officers from the Met concede the task is insurmountably huge.
Back in Tunbridge Wells, Mrs Dodd fears the police are failing to root out the gang leaders.
‘The police are putting away children and people at the lower end,’ she said. ‘But these people are often victims themselves and it’s really only box-ticking. For the people at the top, it’s big business.’
Source: The drug lords of Middle England