A drugs trafficker helped investigators smash his own organised crime group by sending a photograph of his dog on encrypted communications platform EncroChat showing his partner’s phone number on the animal’s tag.
Danny Brown, 55, operated on EncroChat under the handle ‘throwthedice’.
He sent an image of his pet, named ‘Bob’, to co-conspirator Stefan Baldauf, 62, as they worked on a plot to send 448 kilos of MDMA worth £45m to Australia.
National Crime Agency investigators zoomed in on the phone number and used it – among many other tactics in a painstaking investigation – to prove Brown was part of the conspiracy.
Bob was present when Brown was eventually arrested.
Brown and Baldauf also sent accidental selfies of themselves on Encrochat – giving investigators more proof they were involved in the plan, which saw the drugs hidden in the arm of an industrial digger and shipped to Australia.
The OCG members sent the 40-tonne Doosan digger down under on the pretence of selling it.
They organised an online auction to make the excavator’s arrival in Australia look legitimate. But they rigged it by agreeing a pre-arranged bid with the intended recipients.
The auction provided the OCG a nervous moment when other potential buyers registered their interest in the digger.
OCG member Leon Reilly, 50, messaged Brown on EncroChat: “There are six people watching it.”
Brown replied: “F***ing hell, that’s not good is it.”
Brown, Baldauf and Reilly were convicted in June at Kingston Crown Court of drugs trafficking with three other men.
Today, Brown was jailed for 26 years, Baldauf for 28 and Reilly for 24.
The trio and their conspirators plotted in late 2019 and early 2020 to send the drugs, which were 77.5% pure, to Australia where MDMA’s street value is much higher than in the UK.
EncroChat was taken down in 2020.
The NCA led Operation Venetic – the UK law enforcement response to the takedown – which provided investigators with messages offenders had sent thinking the platform was safe from global law enforcement attention.
EncroChat users’ real names did not appear on phone messages – instead, they all used a ‘handle’ which investigators needed to attribute to real world suspects.
In one message, Brown, of Kings Hall Road, Bromley, Kent, sent a photo to his crime group of his television which showed his reflection in it.
And Baldauf, of Midhurst Road, Ealing, London, sent a picture of a brass door sign with his face visible in the reflection.
The OCG bought the excavator, a Doosan DX420, for 75,000 Euros.
Reilly, who used a UK address of Tudor Way, Hillingdon, Uxbridge, but was from Dunbeacon in Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland, arranged for the digger to be moved from Leeds by his company ‘Mizen Equipment’.
The digger was safely housed in an industrial unit in Grays, Essex.
Accomplice Tony Borg, 44, of Southwark Path, Basildon, Essex, took delivery of the machine at an industrial unit in Grays, Essex, and worked on it.
Philip Lawson, 61, of Wraysbury Road, Staines-upon-Thames, designed the hide and arranged a welder to cut open an arm of the digger and seal the Class A behind a lead lining.
Lawson bought a powerful welding machine and arranged for a sign-making company to make some stickers to cover the markings once it had been repainted.
It is believed the drugs were hidden inside the digger on 19 December 2020.
In the days before and after, the OCG members’ Encro phones were in frequent contact with each other and also used the same cell sites at certain times.
Mizen Equipment paid a haulage firm £1,600 to move the digger to Southampton Docks and it took from 24 January to 13 March to arrive in Brisbane, Australia.
Australian Border Force officers x-rayed the digger, removed the drugs, sealed the arm and installed a tracker and listening device before letting it move onto its intended destination – an auction house in Sydney.
The digger was moved to a small site west of Sydney in May 2020 and Lawson forwarded the Australian OCG a drawn diagram of exactly where the drugs were hidden and how the digger should be opened.
On 18 May two men from the Australian OCG spent two days trying to find the drugs before realising something was wrong.
EncroChat messages show the six UK men launched their own investigation and held meetings to find out who had stolen the drugs.
On 15 June 2020 Brown and Baldauf were arrested together in Putney, south west London. Brown was in possession of his Encro phone.
In Baldauf’s car was an iPhone with messages on it showing that he told people his Encro handle was ‘Boldmove’.
After being charged, the offenders repeatedly tried to get the case kicked out of court arguing the EncroChat evidence was inadmissible.
They were convicted by a jury.
Lawson was sentenced to 23 years; Murray to 24; and Borg to 15.
Gordon Meilack, 63, of Kingsway, Camberley, Surrey and Piotr Malinowski, 39, of De’Arn Gardens, Mitcham, London, were cleared of involvement in the conspiracy.
Two men were charged with offences relating to the Australian conspiracy following work between the NCA and Australian Federal Police. They are in the Australian judicial system.
Chris Hill, NCA operations manager, said: “These men thought they were safe on EncroChat but my officers did a superb and painstaking job of building the evidence against them through a mixture of traditional and modern detective skills.
“Brown and Baldauf’s accidental selfies and the photo of Bob the dog were the cherry on the cake in proving who was operating those handles.
“But the OCG went to enormous lengths, even rigging an auction, in a bid to transfer the drugs to Australian conspirators.
“The NCA works with partners at home and abroad to protect the public from the dangers of Class A drugs which wreak so much misery on communities in the UK.”