Encrochat accused was 'not a full blown gangster', court hears

Man to appear before Old Bailey after being charged with murder of woman found in Earlham Grove, Forest Gate, on Boxing Day

Paul Fontaine - of the Pembury Estate in Lower Clapton - is on trial at the Old Bailey accused of a string of offences, including conspiracy to murder - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The evidence used against a “criminal middleman” accused of using EncroChat messages to supply guns is not reliable, his defence counsel has claimed.

Paul Fontaine - of the Pembury Estate in Lower Clapton - is currently on trial at the Old Bailey charged with a string of offences, including conspiracy to murder.

Fontaine, 36, was allegedly a go-to man for guns, ammunition, class A drugs and counterfeit cash, who also reportedly used EncroChat messages to supply a gun fired in one murder and intended for a second shooting.

It's claimed Fontaine conspired with co-defendant Frankie Sinclair to plot this second shooting, planned for weeks later.

While he denies all the charges against him, including plotting to supply heroin and possess counterfeit currency, Cardiff man Sinclair has admitted his involvement in the supply of cocaine and heroin.

After four weeks of evidence, Fontaine's barrister Arlette Mary Piercy delivered a closing speech urging jurors to acquit her client on the basis that the evidence against him is "novel, complex and highly controversial".

EncroChat was a Europe-based communications network and service provider used primarily by organized crime members to plan criminal activities, and was infiltrated by police during a Europe-wide investigation in 2020.

Ms Piercy said: "You may think every count in this indictment relies totally on Encrochat and without it there would be no case.

"No one with a British accent knows how that data was processed - as we have heard it’s a French state secret."

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She added: "There is a worry over the procedure and completeness, because of the uncertainty of a clear trail, especially in technical evidence, to make sure there is no chance of the data being altered. 

"So it is that apparently none of that matters with the data from the French. We just need to trust them they did it right."

The EncroChat encrypted messaging service and its related customized phones - which were equipped with a feature that allowed messages to be automatically deleted - were discovered by the French National Gendarmerie in 2017 when conducting operations against organized crime gangs.

The French police force then formed a special unit to investigate the hacked information, and signed an agreement with the Dutch Police to form a joint investigation team, co-operating with the support of Europol.

As a result of the infiltration of the network, UK police arrested 746 individuals in June 2020.

EncroChat phones carried a higher level of security, with the expectation it was “hard or impossible” for anyone on the outside to access them.

Both defendants allegedly used such mobile devices, which cost £1,000 per handset.

While Fontaine went under the codename 'Usualwolf', Sinclair had the handle 'Nudetrain', jurors have heard.

However, Ms Piercy said that Fontaine's "lack of assets or money and his relatively humble lifestyle is a strong contra-indication" to him being 'Usualwolf'.

She said: "Paul Fontaine might be on the radar, but he certainly isn’t no 'big man ting' on the basis of what you've seen."

Referring to Fontaine's prior convictions - two jail terms for dealing in Class A drugs - his barrister commented that people "might not be surprised if he had a few bad company mates from back in the day".

"But on his previous convictions he’s hardly a mid market drugs supplier, a Charlie large spud East End criminal is he?"

Ms Piercy argued that, considering the nature of her client's convictions, it would be a "pretty audacious step up" for him to be 'Usualwolf' 

"You may think he didn’t go very far up the criminal ladder if we look at the detail in the agreed facts between his first and second criminal convictions, and what we call street dealing," she said.

"His convictions don't smack of an ambitious fixer."

Referring to Fontaine as what's known as a "road man", Ms Piercy refuted the idea that the 36-year-old is a "full blown gangster".

"His Rolex is the only evidence of any kind of lifestyle that the prosecution has against Paul Fontaine."

The trial continues.