County lines: How youngsters are turned into drug dealers

The Canonbury Road in Islington. Picture: Polly Hancock

The Canonbury Road in Islington. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Vulnerable children from Hackney and Islington are being groomed to deal drugs hundreds of miles away – and rented out to gangs.

Canonbury Road is used as a 'drug corridor' for gangs transporting drugs between Dalston and Camden.

Canonbury Road is used as a 'drug corridor' for gangs transporting drugs between Dalston and Camden. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Since the start of 2017 at least 27 people from Hackney have been convicted over so-called “county lines” dealing: when drug-dealing groups branch out into places off their home turf using a dedicated phone line.

In the same period, 11 children from Islington - of which six were looked-after - have been linked to the nefarious trade.

But while dozens from the two counties have been rounded up over deals in locations as far as Scotland, South Wales, Cornwall and Bournemouth, questions remain over how these London-based groups are still able to keep running.

The Gazette has learned:

• A notorious Hackney-based group known thought to have been wiped out last year may still be operating in the boroughs;

• Criminal networks have been using corridors through Dalston and down the Canonbury Road to supply drugs to young “couriers”;

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• Groomed and trafficked young people from London can be “rented” or ”bought” for up to £5,000 to work on a line;

• A single county line phone can be worth up £20,000 a week; the ”master” phone could be worth considerably more;

• Dealers may only earn £100 a day, but those caught by police can be saddled with thousands of pounds of debt.

Last year, 10 people including six from Hackney were convicted for their part in a county lines operation, from London out to Essex and Wales, in a string of well-publicised trials.

The group was known as the Jay Boys or the J Boys because all its communication including texts to customers was signed off with the letter “J”.

They had taken over homes to use as drug-stashing bases in a practice known as “cuckooing”, and in Essex were making up to £3,000 a day transporting drugs from London and recruiting local youngsters to sell them.

In a 33-day period, police discovered, one car had made 123 journeys between London and Clacton.

At the time, Essex Police claimed the “entire gang” had been put behind bars and Courtney Kirby-Diamond, then 26, of Queensbridge Road, was being called the “ringleader”.

But a source who worked with police tracking the group said a wider network of dealers using the same sign off was still operating.

The Jay Boys are thought to be part of a “family” of London dealers that press youngsters into service before assigning them a letter of the alphabet that becomes their “name”, such as “J”, “K” or “M”.

A police investigation found a “corridor” along the Canonbury Road being used by the group to transfer drugs down to Camden.

Suppliers in Vauxhalls would park in Laycock Street at night and “drop off” to up to 15 young bicycle-riding couriers at a time.

When police intervened, the operation moved to behind Highbury & Islington station.

The source said: “The Jay Boys are very sophisticated and re-manifest quickly.

“They’ve got pathways and corridors and they’ve done very nicely as a business model, so you can’t find them.

Publicity by Essex Police following the round-up of the Jay Boys in London and Clacton. Picture: Ess

Publicity by Essex Police following the round-up of the Jay Boys in London and Clacton. Picture: Essex Police - Credit: Archant

“It’s impossible to measure how far they go. When we got closer it was one family, and there was a large Russian drug ring behind it. But all you see are the little boys.”

According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), most children recruited as couriers on county lines are boys aged 15 to 17, with a 12-year-old the youngest person found to have been drug-running so far in England and Wales.

Young people are considered “disposable” and shield those further up in the hierarchy from having to deal directly with customers.

An ex-heroin addict in Hackney said he had been “bombarded” by automated texts from local drug dealers’ phones since coming back to the borough.

He added: “You can see some of the runners should be in school. Some of them say: ‘I’m older than you think’. It’s quite amazing and depressing.”

In recent years, Islington Council has played a prominent role in the fight against county lines drug dealing in London, including work to identify and support young people at risk of exploitation. It led a London-wide call by councils to then home secretary Amber Rudd to get UK-wide organisations such as the National Crime Agency involved.

Since then, Islington has had input into the training of more than 100 British Transport Police officers to be aware of county lines drug dealing and identify signs of vulnerable young people using public transport to ferry drugs out of London.

Mailshot-style advertising sent to Hackney addicts by a local dealer.

Mailshot-style advertising sent to Hackney addicts by a local dealer. - Credit: Archant

Speaking at a Local Government Association conference in 2017, Cllr Joe Caluori, the council’s lead member for children, young people and families, said: “They need to be treated as victims of gang exploitation, not hardened criminals.

“We need action, not just words, on county lines, otherwise it risks becoming the next grooming scandal.”

The Metropolitan Police’s Trident Gang Crime Command, which was launched in 2012, is now trying to target the wider networks that profit from county lines.

Crucially, organisers are now being tackled with legislation from both the Drugs Act and the Modern Slavery Act.

A spokesperson said: “County lines is a national challenge and police forces and partner agencies are working collaboratively to support those who are vulnerable.

“Each case is different but we work to identify trafficked children and prioritise safeguarding, while prosecuting those responsible for organising the drug supply.”

Laycock Street, which was reportedly used as a drop-off point for drug runners. Picture: Polly Hanco

Laycock Street, which was reportedly used as a drop-off point for drug runners. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

“I just wanted to go home”: The young ex-accomplice

A young mother caught up in the Jay Boys’ operations in Wales has called on other looked-after children to avoid the mistakes she made.

Yara Molabaksh, now 18, had a troubled upbringing in Hoxton and London Fields and grew up around drug use and abusive behaviour.

The former Bridge Academy pupil was arrested in Swansea in July 2016 along with her older then-boyfriend Kristian Holme-Slater and Shaheur Rahman, a dealer who had fled Essex to sell in Wales.

Speaking to the Gazette, Miss Molabaksh said she had no idea she was to be part of a drug-dealing spree until after agreeing to go on a “trip” out of London that spring.

She said: “I knew absolutely nothing. He said: ‘If you need someone to stay with, you’ll be fed and have a roof over your head, as long as you do a few things for us.’”

Over the following months the trio sold heroin and crack cocaine in Wales from a string of “cuckooed” properties.

Miss Molabaksh said she was in charge of answering the phone and holding the cash and drugs.

She said: “Each person we stayed with had their own story to tell. Out of the three of us I was the favourite because I looked so cute and tiny. But when they took crack and heroin in front of me I didn’t like the smell.”

In one house, she said, she saw a 22-year-old allowing her child to take crack cocaine.

Elsewhere violence broke out and she was nearly stabbed in the legs and chest.

She said: “I was scared all the time. I just wanted to go home. I’ll never go back because of the stuff I saw.”

The group was arrested in Swansea on July 23. As well as the phone, police seized hundreds of pounds in cash, more than four grams of 94 per cent pure crack cocaine, and contraband including her newly-bought slippers and Louboutin designer shoes.

Last April, Rahman was given a three-year sentence to run concurrently with other crimes in Essex and East Anglia: a total of seven years.

Holme-Slater had previous convictions for drug possession in Hackney and was jailed for a further 30 months.

Miss Molabaksh received an 18-month community order. She said: “The day after court, my mum gave me the biggest hug and we’ve been on good terms since. It was a mistake but I’ve learned from that mistake.

“You’ve got to keep trying and not let people get to you.”

“Focus on the phone”: The government advisor

Government advisor Gwenton Sloley. Picture: Steve Poston.

Government advisor Gwenton Sloley. Picture: Steve Poston. - Credit: Archant

A former gang member who grew up on the streets of Dalston has said “county lines” need to be seen as part of a business enterprise.

Gwenton Sloley is an outreach worker who trains councils and faith groups to identify and support children at risk of falling into crime.

Criminal organisations, he told the Gazette, can make upwards of £100,000 a week by running a drug line.

A single operation may be split across five phones, worth £20,000 each because of the contacts they are loaded with, which can be rented to local outfits.

There are believed to be between 50 and 100 “master phones” operating across the UK.

Mr Sloley said: “Instead of looking at the activities of individuals, focus on the phone. Phone one is the master phone. Phone two is the one young people get arrested with.”

Gwenton Sloley. Picture: Steve Poston

Gwenton Sloley. Picture: Steve Poston - Credit: Archant

Dedicated “phone builders” are deployed to build up contacts of addicts in a target area, giving out the number and free drug tasters.

Mr Sloley added: “You’ll rent it out and furnish them with the right kinds of young people. They are disposable and there will be 30 lining up to go on a line.”

The problem for those caught lies not in the cash value of what they are carrying when arrested, but in the estimated value of the phone. Mr Sloley said: “When young people are arrested they’re indebted. If a young person gets arrested with £2,000 worth of drugs or £3,000 in cash, they’re £25,000 in debt because of the phone and the contacts on the phone.”

If young people are jailed, he said, they get told: “If you go to prison and want to work off that money I’ll send you drugs in prison, and the county lines will continue from jail.”

He added: “These people are working longer hours than any professional and taking more money than a professional can make in a week.

“Unless we’ve got an alternative to the madness, it’s a disease that’s going to grow and grow.”

At the same time, he added, there is some confusion over what the term “county lines” actually refers to. He said: “Police call it county lines because most of the young people are found on the counties, but places like Hemel Hempstead and Finchley are also county lines. County lines is just you going into someone else’s area. You don’t even have to leave town.”

Gwenton Sloley. Picture: Gwenton Sloley

Gwenton Sloley. Picture: Gwenton Sloley - Credit: Archant

“I don’t let my kids out alone”: The estate

Among the locations thought to have been abused in the past by dealers with links to Essex was the Kerridge Court estate off Balls Pond Road.

At one stage, gangs were understood to have been using a set of ground-floor flats as a “drop-off station” on the corridor down to Camden.

The estate is in a quiet area at the convergence point between Islington and Hackney, and falls under the jurisdiction of Islington Council.

On Thursday morning last week, children on school holidays were playing ball in the communal playground.

The Kerridge Court estate. Picture: Polly Hancock.

The Kerridge Court estate. Picture: Polly Hancock. - Credit: Archant

But on the same morning two men were also seen leaving flats smoking cannabis.

Residents could not remember a specific period when drug-dealing on the estate had been especially rife, but one said it “comes in waves”.

Someone on the estate told the Gazette about a young woman they believed was working as a “courier” in one of the flats, which is privately rented.

They said: “You know when a dealer is a dealer because of the times people come in. About six weeks ago the police came and four guys jumped out the kitchen window. People feel scared – you know what happens when you grass up somebody.”

Neighbours meet regularly to discuss local issues, and are asking police to take up more frequent patrols of the area.

One resident of 30 years said even within the last week boys had been seen running through the estate with butchers’ knives. They said: “Lately it has been bad. The problem is bigger than drugs; it’s gangs from outside of the area and the people living here are the victims.

“We have had a nice experience here, but I don’t let my kids outside alone.

The Kerridge Court estate. Picture: Polly Hancock.

The Kerridge Court estate. Picture: Polly Hancock. - Credit: Archant

“They need to look at people’s parenting and look at provisions on the estate, because there’s nothing attractive around here for children.

“Some of these children aren’t being fed lunch. They need to worry about that; these are the children vulnerable to being groomed.”

Last year research by the St Giles Trust found that youngsters as young as 12 were being drawn into the drug trade for money.

While most of those involved had come from difficult backgrounds or had been in care, some were from “well-ordered... materially comfortable families”.

An Islington Council spokesperson said the borough had protected youth services despite big government cuts.

“We urge any residents with safeguarding concerns about young people anywhere in Islington to contact us immediately so we can investigate and take action,” he added. “We are also very happy to talk to any residents who have concerns about youth provision near where they live.”

The Kerridge Court estate. Picture: Polly Hancock.

The Kerridge Court estate. Picture: Polly Hancock. - Credit: Archant

“There’s nowhere safe”: The support network

Islington charity The Pilion Trust runs an annual shelter for young people who are homeless, in crisis or at risk, including those formerly involved in county lines.

Every winter about 70 young people are housed at the Crash Pad, which provides a place to rest, support services and activities from a secret location in London.

Founder Savvas Panas said the majority of the 18- to 23-year-olds who came were fleeing “affiliations” and could not go home for fear of reprisal.

He said: “If they try and leave the group the police will demand names. There’s nowhere a young person will be safe.”

Savvas Panas, CEO of The Pilion Trust, at the Crash Pad shelter.

Savvas Panas, CEO of The Pilion Trust, at the Crash Pad shelter. - Credit: Archant

The charity has previously had contact of one person, now aged 21, who formerly worked for the Jay Boys, and is currently still waiting to be re-housed.

In the meantime the young man remains vulnerable and is living in fear of reprisal.

Mr Panas said: “He’s trying really hard. He has suffered massive, massive anxiety, looking over his shoulder and shaking. If they housed him he could move forward.”

Young people, he said, were groomed “quietly” by drug-dealing groups over a long period of time, often in apparently innocuous public spaces.

He said: “They target loners and autistics and children from troubled backgrounds.

“They’ll be alone, sitting in a park, playing ball, and someone comes along and says, do you want to kick a ball around with me? Just like that, throwing a ball or going to the shop and having chicken and chips. You are groomed and befriended, you go to the movies, and then you have to do tasks.”

At the Crash Pad young people are given a bed with clean bedding, dinner and breakfast, hot washes and someone to listen to them throughout the night.

There is no wi-fi at the shelter, which helps many of the residents feel calmer.

Mr Panas said police needed to focus on the outfits benefiting from drug-dealing lines instead of demanding information from the vulnerable parties.

He added: “The police are not working at both ends of the spectrum. They’re only working at one end, which is the cheap and easy one. Why aren’t they going after the big boys?”

“These criminals blight communities”: The county

A three-year operation carried out from 2014 by Essex Police and the Met saw a whole swathe of the Jay Boys’ operations dismantled, with eight people put behind bars for a collective total of 41 years.

The gang had targeted the homes of vulnerable addicts, using violence and intimidation, and would make an average of £2,000 to £3,000 a day selling crack and heroin.

But despite the success of the investigation, codenamed Operation Raptor, Essex Police said there were still 134 drug-dealing gangs known to be operating in the county and the number of county lines could change “on a daily basis”.

A spokesperson said: “Every single day our dedicated Operation Raptor teams work tirelessly, arresting those selling drugs, putting them before the courts and behind bars and working to take these gangs out from the top down.

“These criminals blight communities, exploit the young and vulnerable and perpetrate violence without a second thought.

“If they think they can do those things in our county, they are wrong.”

Essex Police act on intelligence from the Metropolitan Police and forces in neighbouring counties to target those travelling across borders to commit crime.

Late last year the force also received £664,000 in government cash to help tackle serious violence, youth exploitation and drugs gangs.

The spokesperson added: “We work closely with all of our partners to ensure appropriate safeguarding is always in place for vulnerable individuals we come across during our investigations.”