Final member of drugs gang who stashed over £3 million worth of pills in a storage lock up is jailed

Dad-of-three Mohammed Rafiq from Manchester
-Credit: (Image: No credit)

The final member of a drugs gang who stored more than £3 million worth of etizolam pills in a storage lock up has been jailed.

The gang produced the anti-anxiety pills, which are not licenced for use in the UK, 'on an industrial scale'. Police also found £22,860 in cash stuffed inside an Asda bag at Armadillo Storage, on Portrack Lane in Middlesbrough.

The drugs operation had first been uncovered by chance, after police spotted a Renault Clio driving erratically in Stockton on March 17 2021. An officer chased the car and after the driver and passengers fled, found a kidnapped man and meat cleaver inside, Teesside Live reports.

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Mohammed Rafiq, 46, of Kings Road in Manchester, was part of a drugs gang that was caught after the men fled the Clio, leaving it in an alleyway. PC Dave Richardson was about to unleash his police dog to chase the men, when he heard, "a cry for help" coming from the car.

Inside, was a man on the back seat who said he had been kidnapped by four men from outside a shop. He had minor injuries and a meat cleaver had been left next to him. A 9mm Glock pistol was later found - it had been thrown over a wall from the alleyway, court heard.

CCTV and taxi records led police to gang member Michael Cornwell's address in Sunderland, where a drugs factory was operating. A cement user was being used in the kitchen to mix the etizolam ingredients. Analysis of phone records showed Cornwell had made repeated calls to Armadillo Storage in Middlesbrough. This led police to the £22,000.

A key found in Cornwell's bedroom belonged to "You hold the key" storage unit, on the A66 in Darlington. The court heard that after Rafiq realised that Cornwell's home had been searched, he made a "distressed call" to the storage facility asking for a second key. Suspicious staff opened up the unit, saw the drugs and called the police.

£3 million worth of etizolam was uncovered. Ten further bags containing £59,000 of heroin were also found. Five members of the drugs conspiracy were based on Teesside; one of them mixed the drugs in Sunderland and two other men were brought over from Liverpool. Prosecutors say it is likely that the two Liverpudlians involved brought the gun to Teesside.

Mohammed Rafiq made repeated trips over the Pennines, from his home in Greater Manchester, to work for the drugs conspiracy. He was caught on CCTV visiting the storage units and police found that he had deposited large amounts of cash into his bank account.

Yousef Muflahi, 26, and Alarsh Said, 28, both from Liverpool, were "brought over as enforcers to provide threat and weaponry for the kidnapping," according to the prosecution. Sufy Mohammed, 20, of Stockton, was arrested and his brother, Adnan Mohammed, 22, of Belsay Close in Stockton, was found to have bought the Clio second hand, the night before.

Mr Hammond had been "lured" to the Tilery estate by Victoria Bryson, 42, of Norton Road in Stockton. Bryson is a mother, who was found to be making a living by supplying street dealers with cocaine. Rafiq, of Kings Road in Manchester, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply class A and Class C drugs.

In March, Sufy Mohammed was given the longest jail term - 12 years and nine months. Jake Mosley, 21, of Bransdale Close in Stockton, was jailed for seven years and six months. Adnam Mohamed was handed seven years and six months. Michael Cornwell was jailed for seven years. Victoria Bryson was handed four years-and-six months. The two men from Liverpool, Alarsh Said, and Yousef Muflahi were jailed for nine years each.

On Tuesday (May 28), Mohammed Rafiq's barrister Saleema Mahmood, said that her client, who is a father-of-three, was "acting on instructions from those higher up in the drugs chain". She said that Rafiq has been held in custody since September 2021 and he has endured three prison lockdowns during that time, which has meant he has not been able to take a prison job.

Judge Chris Smith told Rafiq: "This is serious drug trafficking. Those who are involved in the drug trade exploit the misery of those who are addicted, for their own profits. The cost to society is brought about by other serious offending that stems from drug trafficking. Etizolam has been described as more dangerous than diazepam."

Rafiq was jailed for eight-years. In total, the eight gang members have been jailed for 65-years.