Out with the officers smashing Kettering's biggest organised crime gang

Police enter the building.
Police enter the building.

It's 4.30am on Wednesday and my alarm goes off.

Bleary-eyed and severely lacking caffeine, I make my way to Northamptonshire Police's Wootton Hall HQ for a top secret job in Kettering.

Police outside the house.

Police outside the house.

Little did I know I was about to witness one of the force's most successful operations in recent years.

It's standing room only as dozens upon dozens of officers pile into a lecture room for an early morning briefing.

Detective Inspector Steve Watkins talks them through eight planned simultaneous raids on Kettering addresses where people suspected of drug dealing and grooming Northamptonshire children into doing their dirty work could be located.

It's the second period of a massive three-day operation, called Operation Serpent, that involves 250 officers from several forces and has been meticulously planned since 2017. It can be reported this morning (Friday) after its completion.

A sniffer dog searches the messy property.

A sniffer dog searches the messy property.

The job involves disrupting the town's drug supply and an organised crime group, which doesn't come as a big surprise. It cannot be argued that we don't have a problem with heroin and crack cocaine. Earlier this year we revealed Kettering was swamped by an astonishing 16 county lines - more than the county town of Northampton.

This operation aims to obliterate one of these county lines, known as the Kay Line, which until now had posed the highest gang risk in Northamptonshire.

I'm assigned to Sergeant Peter Winterflood's team and by about 6.25am we're in a riot van and on our way to Gotch Road in Barton Seagrave.

We chat on the way about how the drug trade is affecting Kettering and it soon becomes clear illegal substances are not the only concern - it's the children being used as pawns in a dystopian chess game that concerns them just as much, if not more.

Where Wednesday's raids took place.

Where Wednesday's raids took place.

Sgt Winterflood's team recall children being packed up from big cities, lured by the promise of easy cash, and dropped in our county to make sure those who profit from drugs don't get their hands dirty.

They are recruited and groomed as drug dealers, mules and runners. It's modern slavery and human trafficking but not the stereotypical form.

Some even recruit their own children knowing two things: that vulnerable young people aren't as likely to be prosecuted, and that there are extra procedures in place if police want to strip search them. Teenagers have been known to insert Kinder Egg capsules full of drugs into unthinkable places to make sure they are not found.

It's 7am and it's time for action. Other raids at addresses in Bath Road, St John's Road, Hazelwood Court, Central Avenue, Margaret Road and Tordoff Place are all taking place within the same five-minute window and we hear of two successful operations elsewhere over the police radio.

PC Colin Gray from the force's Proactive Team looks more like a robber than a cop, wearing a balaclava, gloves and protective eyewear and clothing to shield him from glass he is about to shatter.

He swings the van's door open as we approach the target's house before launching himself out as others follow. He smashes a window before officers batter down the door with the big red key and arrest the suspect. Sergeant Tony Payne describes the method as "dramatic".

The suspect is soon on his way to the cells on the outskirts of Kettering as a search of the property begins, led by a sniffer dog, and other officers reassure neighbours.

Shards of glass are being swept off the driveway as I enter the house. It's not the property you expect a suspected drug conspirator to live in.

Yes, it's an absolute mess. Yes, the odour isn't particularly pleasant. But it's in a quiet residential street and children's toys are everywhere. This is a family home.

A search team are expected to spend hours painstakingly sifting through the house for drugs, weapons and cash as we make our way back to force HQ where a team have been watching the operation through body cameras and CCTV.

It's been a success.

The previous day, five raids by more than 100 Northamptonshire police officers took place in Ealing and Hillingdon in London.

Assisted by the Metropolitan Police, two men and one woman were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to supply class A drugs, human trafficking and modern slavery offences.

Around £5,000 in cash as well as class A and B drugs, knives and a corrosive substance were also seized as part of subsequent searches of the addresses.

Since the organised crime group were first put under investigation in 2017 police have seized more than £80,000 in class A drugs as well as £10,000 in cash.

All eight suspects wanted in Wednesday's raids were found. And yesterday, warrants were executed at four more Kettering addresses and one in Thrapston, leading to the arrests of seven more people suspected of having links to the organised crime group.

In total the number of people arrested as part of the operation was 18.

Det Insp Watkins said: “This highly organised, London-based gang had formed a network of drug dealers and associates in Kettering which they were using to target and recruit young people to supply drugs on their behalf while holding them in servitude.

“I cannot understate enough the impact that our actions over the last three days have had on the lives of the people living in Kettering and, in particular, those who have been exploited by this criminal group. They have spread misery and caused significant harm to innumerable people.

“We have sent a loud and clear message to all those who would come to our county and try to cause us harm, and to anyone who would try and criminally exploit children in the future.

“I’m in no doubt this week’s activity has significantly disrupted the supply of class A drugs in this county and that our communities are safer as a result.”

Eleven people have already been charged in connection with the raids.

Five men and two women arrested yesterday (Thursday) were being held overnight for questioning over alleged drugs and modern slavery offences.

The offences the suspects were arrested for carry lengthy prison sentences if convicted.

Assistant Chief Constable Simon Blatchly, head of operations at Northamptonshire Police, said: “This week’s activity demonstrates this force’s ability to tackle and very significantly disrupt organised crime groups in this county and, crucially, safeguard vulnerable young people who fall prey to those peddling drugs.

“I’d like to thank everyone involved in this highly successful operation which sends out a clear message to those involved in drugs supply in this county.

“County lines criminality remain a threat, but Operation Serpent sends out a very clear message to those involved in drugs supply that Northamptonshire Police: we will pursue you tirelessly and relentlessly.”

Anyone with information about suspected drug dealing in their communities should contact Northamptonshire Police on 101 or call Crimestoppers, in confidence, on 0800 555111.

Those charged as part of Operation Serpent:

DAY ONE:

Zayne Connell-Donaldson, aged 29, of Highfield Close, Hillingdon, London, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell crack cocaine and conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation.

Sharon Donaldson, aged 53, of Highfield Close, Hillingdon, London, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell cocaine, conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation, possession of a pointed police-style baton, an offensive weapon, and refusing to disclose a mobile phone password by a notice issued under Section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

James Atkinson, aged 28, of 31 Lewis Close, Northolt, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell crack cocaine and conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation.

All of the offences are alleged to have been committed between April 1, 2018 and June 25, 2019 and all three were remanded to appear before Northampton Crown Court on July 17.

DAY TWO:

Matthew Hall, aged 39, of Gotch Road, Barton Seagrave, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell crack cocaine and conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation.

Chris Foster, aged 39, of no fixed address, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell crack cocaine and conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation.

Darren Caves, aged 42, of Hazelwood Court, Kettering, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell crack cocaine and conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation.

Matthew Stevens, aged 19, of Charles Court, Kettering, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine.

Suraj Kumar, aged 45, of St John’s Road, Kettering, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine.

Lester Booth, aged 19, of no fixed address, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine.

Leonard Booth, aged 24, of no fixed address, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine.

All of the offences are alleged to have been committed between April 1, 2018 and June 25, 2019 and all were remanded to appear before Northampton Crown Court on July 17.

An eighth suspect, Julie Robinson, aged 58, of Tordoff Place, Kettering, was charged with conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine. She will appear before Northampton Magistrates' Court today (Friday).

DAY THREE:

Simon Mitchell, aged 29, of Gotch Road, Kettering is charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell crack cocaine and conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation.

Roger Curtis, aged 43, of Durban Road, Kettering, is charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell crack cocaine and conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation.

Richard Justice, aged 37, of Northumberland Road, Kettering, is charged with conspiring to sell heroin, conspiring to sell crack cocaine and conspiring to arrange or facilitate persons under 18 with a view to their exploitation.

Abigail Wyley, aged 31, of Harlow, Essex, is charged with conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine.

Perry Norman, aged 38, of Treen Close, Thrapston, is charged with conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine.

Charlene Ellis, aged 34, of Northumberland Road, Kettering, is charged with conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine.

Sam Coleman, aged 21, is being produced from custody to face charges of conspiring to sell heroin and conspiring to sell crack cocaine.

All are due to appear at Northampton Magistrates' Court today.