Organised crime group sentenced for multimillion pound counterfeit drug supply offences

Three men have been sentenced to prison for their part in an organised crime group producing and supplying counterfeit drugs worth more than £20 million.

Following an investigation by the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit (SEROCU), Marc Ward, aged 36, of Queens Road, Fratton, Portsmouth, Charlton Pascal, aged 30, of Arrow Close, Luton, Thomas Durden, aged 36, of Dale Street, Dartford, Kent, Christopher Kirkby, aged 35, of Angle Green, Shefford, Bedford, John Gordon Turner, aged 49, of Tamarind, Cullompton, Devon, pleaded guilty to conspiring together to supply Class C drug, Alprazolam at previous hearings.

On Friday (31/3) they were sentenced at a hearing at Portsmouth Crown Court. Ward was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, , Durden was sentenced to six years, five months’ imprisonment, and Kirkby was sentenced to a total of nine years, six months’ imprisonment.

Pascal and Turner will be sentenced a hearing to take place in May.

From 2014, the group was involved in the supply of a counterfeit version of the controlled benzodiazepine drug ‘Xanax’ and other benzodiazepines via Darknet marketplaces, with a street value of £20,863,684. When correctly prescribed, the drug is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, however it is often abused by those seeking its sedative effects. Although widely used legitimately in the United States of America, it is available only on private prescription in the UK.

An initial investigation by Pfizer Global Security, which previously manufactured the drug, started in June 2016 when a number of test purchases were made identifying Ward as operating behind the Darknet vendor name ‘HulkedBenzoBoss’ and the case was subsequently referred to police in early2017.

While operating as  ‘HulkedBenzoBoss’, Ward supplied a minimum of 22, 843 deals of the fake Xanax tablets and other Class C drugs. During this period an estimated £2,157,700 in Bitcoin was received by Ward from the Darknet markets and deposited into three main cryptocurrency wallets.

On 13 June 2017 Ward was arrested by officers coming out of an address in South Street, Havant, Hampshire, on suspicion of supplying a controlled drug of Class C between June 2016 and June 2017, and on suspicion of money laundering. Evidence from the property showed his involvement in a wider conspiracy concerning the production of counterfeit Xanax.

While Ward was in custody, the OCG began the process of closing down their ‘lab’ in a lock-up in Gravesend, Kent, in order to reinvent themselves on the Darknet, trading as AchlysUK. Pascal entered the conspiracy under the control of Kirkby, and attended the ‘lab’ to collect items from Durden. Pfizer conducted a series of purchases and identified Pascal operating behind the Achlysuk identity.

A pill press was moved on 20 June 2017 to Shefford, Bedfordshire, and the following month, transferred to the control of Turner in Devon.

Warrants took place at the properties of Durden, Kirkby and Pascal’s properties on 5 October 2017, and each was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the conspiracy. Cryptocurrency to the value of £1.3 million was seized from Durden. Turner was arrested on 13 February 2019 on suspicion of involvement in the conspiracy.

Ward also pleaded guilty to a number of other offences at a previous court hearing; offering to supply Dihydrocodeine (a Class B drug), offering to supply Codeine Phosphate (a Class B drug), offering to supply Diazepam (a Class C drug), offering to supply Zopiclone (a Class C drug), acquiring criminal property and converting criminal property.

Durden and Kirkby also admitted a further count each of conspiracy to supply Alprazolam and converting criminal property and Pascal a count of acquiring criminal property.

All were charged in connection with the offences on 11 December 2020.

A Proceeds of Crime investigation is currently ongoing.

Senior investigating officer, Detective Superintendent Neil Cripps, of SEROCU, said: “This organised crime group worked to set up a ‘business’ to act as a cover, producing and supplying counterfeit Xanax and other Class C drugs on a commercial scale with a street value in excess of £20 million.

“Their actions subsequently had a devastating impact on those who purchased the drugs for casual use and found themselves addicted to what are highly dangerous substances if not prescribed by a medical professional and used correctly. As with all illegal drugs, there is always an inherent danger to those who take them.

“The South East Regional Organised Crime Unit worked closely with Pfizer Global Security on this case to ensure those responsible for these serious offences were brought before a court to account for their actions. Our five-year investigation has subsequently resulted in significant prison sentences for those whose sole aim was to profit from others’ misery.

“If you become aware of the supply of drugs in your community, please contact your local police force on the non-emergency number 101. We will continue our work disrupting and tackling serious and organised crime across the communities of the South East.”

An online media pack relating to this case is available here.