Gang's cocaine 'empire' plans collapsed at garden centre cafe

A drug gang’s hopes of netting GBP1m a month were dashed while they enjoyed a “celebratory breakfast” at a garden centre. Police seized six kilos of cocaine fresh off the continent when they busted a Merseyside crew who had plans of establishing a “Class A empire”. The seizure of the 75% pure stash, smuggled into the UK in a hidden compartment inside a Seat Leon, led to six conspirators being locked up.

The last of those, Dominic McInally, was one of Britain’s most wanted men until the fugitive was finally captured at a seedy Marbella strip club.  Last month the ECHO laid bare his lavish lifestyle, from a luxury pad in Formby’s “Millionaire’s Row” and a wardrobe bursting with designer gear, to thousands of pounds in dirty cash stuffed in biscuit tins under the floorboards of his parents’ home. Now we can tell the full story of how the gang intended to exploit drug addicts’ misery and reap the financial rewards by forming key connections abroad.

And we can reveal why one of the top men – Jordan Talbot – was “radically under sentenced”, when in reality he was said to be the “leader of the UK arm” of the audacious enterprise. Liverpool Crown Court heard the scheme involving McInally, Talbot, Christopher Corry, Ryan McQueen, William Marsh and James Gradwell was carefully crafted. But it came crashing down when Talbot fled from a taxi, clutching a black rucksack full of drugs, outside Rushton’s garden centre in Thornton one morning in January 2014.

Not only was Talbot “caught red-handed” with the cocaine, but his GBP1,000 Blackberry PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) phone was seized – a forerunner to EncroChat devices which later became favoured by gangsters across Europe. Painstaking policing allowed detectives to subsequently put together a full picture of the events leading up to his arrest.

Liverpool gang caught trying to flood the UK with high purity cocaine. From left to right: William Marsh, Christopher Corry, Jordan Talbot and Ryan McQueen.The gang caught trying to flood the UK with high purity cocaine.

From left to right: William Marsh, Christopher Corry, Jordan Talbot and Ryan McQueen.

The plot was launched when Marsh and Gradwell travelled in a Seat Leon car from Merseyside to the French and Belgian border to collect the cocaine. This car was referred to by the gang as a “pie car” and was said by prosecutors to be a “vehicle set up to hide material it shouldn’t”. The responsibility of bringing the drugs to the UK then fell upon HGV driver McQueen.

He flew from Belfast to Stansted Airport and drove a truck to France to meet the pair, who passed him the illicit stash. McQueen then took a ferry to Dover, where he met former soldier Corry, before they headed back north. Ian Harris, prosecuting, said once they returned to Liverpool, McQueen stayed in a Premier Inn Hotel in Netherton, “guarding the drugs”, on January 17.

Early that morning Talbot, codenamed “Zipit”, messaged McInally, aka “Pilsner”, over PGP devices, informing him: “F***er here, change of plan.” Mr Harris said “f***er here” clearly referred to the arrival at the Premier Inn of “six kilograms of freshly imported cocaine”. The gang needed to work fast.

Further messages laid bare their arrangements, as McInally drove to Formby and collected Talbot, then the pair went to meet Corry at his Thornton home, coinciding with “a small fortune in cocaine just happening to be in the country, nearby”.

A Seat Leon used by James Gradwell to smuggle drugs from the continent. The car was adapted to store cocaine in the transmission.A Seat Leon used by James Gradwell to smuggle drugs from the continent. The car was adapted to store cocaine in the transmission.

Police actually stopped McInally’s car and arrested both him and Talbot at 9.45am, but all they found were six mobile phones and his then empty rucksack.

Officers were forced to release the pair and because no offences were disclosed, their phones were returned. Later that morning, McInally emailed Talbot, warning him of police surveillance. But the gang were in too deep to turn back.

Corry, seen by police to look “agitated”, headed to the Premier Inn, met McQueen, and they left together in Corry’s silver BMW. They returned to Corry’s house, headed to the car park of the Nag’s Head pub in Netherton, then set off to Rushton’s garden centre cafe, at around 11.30am.

Rushton's Garden Centre on Runnells Lane in ThorntonRushton’s Garden Centre on Runnells Lane in Thornton

Corry and McQueen sat down with two plates of food, before Corry drove home, met Talbot who was in a taxi, and both vehicles returned to the garden centre in Runnells Lane. Corry collected a black bag from McQueen and gave it to Talbot, who was sitting waiting in the taxi.

Mr Harris said: “Police stopped the taxi as it drove away. Talbot jumped out of the taxi as it slowed down and he tried to run away, with the black rucksack. He was caught after a chase.

“The rucksack looks to be the same one that he was seen with earlier in the morning. When he left Copy Lane Police Station with McInally he had it with him, empty.

Dominic McInally, 30, of Victoria Road, FormbyDominic McInally, 30, of Victoria Road, Formby

“Now, however, it contained six rectangular wrapped packages. McQueen and Corry were arrested at the cafe, an unpleasant interruption to their celebratory ‘mission accomplished’ breakfast.”

The six kilos of cocaine had a wholesale value of up to GBP50,000. However, due to its high purity, it would have become up to 25kg once cut with bulking agents, meaning a street value of up to GBP2.4m when sold to punters at a purity of less than 10%. Detectives were sure this was only the start of a regular monthly operation, possibly bringing to Britain as much as 16 “bits”, slang for a kilo, every 30 days.

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Further messages on Talbot’s phone suggested the gang had hopes of increasing this to 24kg of cocaine a month. This evidence was unearthed when his phone was sent for examination, and, while it was locked and couldn’t be opened, it was decrypted “to a degree”.

In March 2015, emails were recovered from the handset, from which McInally’s codename, Pilsner, was identified. An officer saved these emails, but after a day working on extracting more content, she went home for the day. Mr Harris said: “When she returned to it the following morning the remaining messages couldn’t be viewed.

Another expert in the Metropolitan Police was unable to retrieve any further information.

Liverpool’s criminal underworld exposed

“The handset had been, unbeknown to the police, programmed to remotely wipe its contents after a set period. This being an extra layer of security used by this type of phone to avoid detection by law enforcement. “Powering on the device in order to recover the messages had inadvertently started the clock on this ‘wipe period’.

The phone had wiped its memory. This explains why the PGP system was so important for serious criminals.” McInally, Marsh and Gradwell fled the country before they could be arrested.

Marsh and Gradwell were arrested in August 2014 and August 2015 respectively, but McInally remained at large and in November 2019 obtained a British passport with false details.

Dominic McInally was among 10 most wanted British criminals thought to be hiding in SpainDominic McInally was among 10 most wanted British criminals thought to be hiding in Spain

He enjoyed six years on the run before his capture at Casa Masa strip club in sunny Spain in the early hours of February 28 last year. His claims that he was friends with gang members, but had nothing to do with cocaine and made his money trading cars and jewellery, didn’t wash with a jury. McInally was unanimously found guilty of conspiring to import cocaine after a trial, which heard he had “no obvious” income between 2007 and 2014, yet there was plenty of evidence of high living.

When McInally was sentenced at the end of last month, Mr Harris outlined the jail terms previously received by the rest of the gang.

Cash seized from cocaine dealer Dominic McInally's mum and dad's home in Little CrosbyCash seized from cocaine dealer Dominic McInally’s mum and dad’s home in Little Crosby

In May 2014, Corry – said to have played a “leading role” as a transport manager – was jailed for 11 and a half years. At the same time, “significant role” couriers Talbot and McQueen received six and a half years, and seven years, respectively. However, Mr Harris said since Talbot’s PGP device had been decrypted, it was quite clear Talbot had been “radically under sentenced”.

He said: “His PGP telephone wasn’t successfully analysed until May 2015, months after his sentence, and portrayed him as the undoubted coordinating leader of the UK arm of the operation, with links in Holland. “It contained evidence of the proposal to expand the Class A empire to multi-kilogram importations on a regular basis using converted vehicles.”

James Gradwell, 24, used a "Trojan Horse" Seat Leon to smuggle cocaineJames Gradwell, 24, used a “Trojan Horse” Seat Leon to smuggle cocaine

Mr Harris added: “That sentence really is a discrete sentence which didn’t really reflect at all his true role.” In September 2014, Marsh was jailed for 10 years and eight months.

Gradwell wasn’t as lucky as Talbot. He was jailed for 13 years and seven months in February 2016, by which time the full scale of the plot was now known, thanks to the PGP decryption. Jailing McInally for 12 years, Judge Garrett Byrne accepted he hadn’t played a “leading role”, wasn’t involved in some of the important conversations between Talbot and others – including a mystery man in Holland named “Taber” – and wasn’t directing other gang members.

Enter your postcode for the latest news where you live He said Corry was sometimes referred to as “boss”, while Talbot also took a leading role, “despite what happened at his sentencing hearing”. The judge said “at the other end of the scale” was McQueen, who was a driver, and that McInally was therefore “somewhere between them”.

He said McInally’s role was to support Talbot, transport him, provide general help to him and that messages suggested they also supplied drugs to various addresses. Judge Byrne said McInally played a “significant role” and told him: “You knew what the scale of the operation was and you were a willing participant in it.”

Stories from Liverpool Crown Court

During the trial, Talbot’s name was subject to reporting restrictions, but these have now been lifted. The ECHO has since learned that Talbot has now been convicted of another drug plot, linked to the hacking of the secret phone network EncroChat last year.

The 29-year-old, of Elson Road, Formby, was charged by the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit as part of Operation Venetic last summer.

Last month he admitted his roles in plots to supply cocaine and cannabis resin.

He will be sentenced at Liverpool Crown Court on May 14.