'Lightning Fork' who fled to Spain caught in amphetamine lab sting

Officers seized a large quantity of chemicals and substances able to produce 3000+ kilos of amphetamine sulphate during raids last year at industrial units based in Aintree and North Wales
-Credit: (Image: Merseyside Police)

A tradesman secretly trafficked class A drugs under the pseudonym "Lightening Fork" before fleeing to Spain.

Adam Ashton was ensnared as part of a National Crime Agency investigation into a multi-million pound Merseyside drugs gang which operated an amphetamine lab near Chester. Members of the organised crime group have now been locked up for more than 200 years.

Liverpool Crown Court heard on Wednesday that the 42-year-old was identified as the user of the handle "LighteningFork" on encrypted communications platform EncroChat before the network was infiltrated by the French police during 2020. Ashton, of Burnham Road, in Allerton, was said to have acted as a "go between", liaising between the OCG and brothers Stefon and Mark Beeby, who were based in his former home town in West Yorkshire.

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Nicola Daley, prosecuting, described how the outfit had a "large scale" amphetamine production line at a premises called Wood Cottage. The dad was evidenced to have travelled to this site on two occasions in April and May that year, as well as sourcing chemicals used in the manufacturing process and arranging for couriers to transport drugs and collect money.

Ashton also utilised the service to source wholesale quantities of cocaine and heroin. But he then appeared to become aware that EncroChat had been hacked weeks before this became public knowledge on June 12, telling "RacyTruck" on May 17: "These phones aren’t safe anymore. Fact. I’ll show you what I’ve just seen and heard."

Ashton subsequently travelled to Spain via ferry in March 2021 and was ultimately detained on a European arrest warrant on September 21 2022, being returned to the UK on August 4 last year. He has a total of 15 previous convictions for 34 offences, including 92 months in 2010 for possession of a prohibited of a prohibited firearm, possession of ammunition without a certificate and charges in relation to the supply of cocaine and ecstasy.

Alex Rose, defending, told the court that his client had been pulled back into criminality by Stefon Beeby, having worked as a labourer on building sites in the Halifax and Batley areas of West Yorkshire following his release from prison. Ashton's counsel added: "When the covid lockdown happened, he had the skills and the offers of work but could not take them on because of the pandemic.

"The reason he has become involved at all was because of Stefon Beeby. He acted on instruction from him. He knew Stefon Beeby a long time ago but did not consider him to be a friend. They did not met up meaningfully again until 2020.

"Having received the sentence in 2010, Mr Ashton turned his back on this type of lifestyle. He was working hard as a skilled labourer, doing building work in Halifax and Batley.

"Stefon Beeby was involved in the trade but also owned a pub and invited Mr Ashton in the capacity to use his skills to look to convert it into a pizza restaurant. Mr Ashton had a number of professional contacts working on shop fits, but also working in private residencies across West Yorkshire while living at his address in Allerton.

"He also had been working at addresses overseas in Europe. It is not an excuse but context that, when the covid lockdown happened, he had the skills and the offers of work but could not take them on because of the pandemic and he was tempted back into this world by Stefon Beeby.

"He had a troubled childhood. His parents divorced when they were young and his father was violent. He moved away and left school at 14. He eventually was thrown out by his mum and moved to a one-bed council house on his own. He was trying his best to make ends meet. After his sentence in 2010, he turned his life around through his marriage to his wife and his daughter.

"He has a wife willing to not just stand by him but to reintegrate him back into the family home as well. He feels remorse and shame that he has been pulled back into this, having turned his back on it."

Ashton admitted conspiracy to supply heroin, cocaine and amphetamine and conspiracy to produce amphetamine. Appearing via video link to HMP Berwyn, he was jailed for eight years and four days - a term which was reduced to account for time served in Spain while awaiting extradition back to the UK.

Sentencing, Judge Denis Watson KC said: "The drug conspiracy required patience, skill, determination and hard work. None were trained but the financial rewards were significant for them to continue, despite the lack of formal training. You were not quite part of that. The scale of the operation was vast."

Judge Watson added that the conspirators had caused "degradation and human misery for those who take drugs, their family and the wider community", adding: "So much crime comes from the supply of control of controlled drugs and the harm they rise. I do not overlook how it impacts your own hopes and aspirations and I have read the letter from your wife, and I take the care she would wish me to."

Previous trials heard that the gang were responsible for shipping large quantities of injectable amphetamines across England, Scotland and Wales as part of a multi-million pound scheme. The OCG was also involved in the trafficking of cocaine, heroin and ketamine.

Two of its ringleaders meanwhile made attempts to source weapons in the months before their downfall. Their huge drug production operation was initially discovered after the encrypted communications platform was infiltrated by the French police during the spring of 2020.

The NCA then discovered a series of messages alluding to a laboratory on the outskirts of Chester being used to produce amphetamine. Officers from Merseyside Police and North Wales Police later discovered this factory on Deeside Lane in the Sealand area of the city.

But the site was "abruptly closed down" when its operators realised that they were under surveillance. Undeterred, the gang continued its attempts to produce amphetamine at a storage unit in an Aintree industrial site known as the Box Works.

Communications detailed arrangements for the supply of a total of 71 litres of amphetamine oil and between 780kg and 1,000kg of amphetamine sulphate paste. The outfit supplied customers as far afield as Dundee, Glasgow, Neath and Newcastle.

Anthony Saunderson, Paul Mount and Owens were said to have been the gang's top men, with the former having used handles named after Breaking Bad character Jesse Pinkman and Sopranos actor James Gandolfini. Others sometimes worked for more than 10 hours a day to manufacture the drugs.

Ten men were previously imprisoned during 2022 in connection with the probe. Forty-two-year-old Saunderson, from Formby, was jailed for 35 years and 38-year-old Mount, of Halsall in West Lancashire, received 34 years.

Owens, aged 48 and from Huyton, was handed 24 years. Thirty-two-year-old Kieran Hartley, of Knotty Ash, was given 23 years, 42-year-old Stefon Beeby, from Halifax, was jailed for 15-and-a-half years and 33-year-old Lee Eccles, of Maghull, was locked up for eight years and nine months.

Stephen Shearwood, 38 and also from Maghull, was jailed for 14 years and four months. Forty-four-year-old David Kelly, of Ormskirk, was handed 15 years and three months.

Michael Pope, aged 35 and of Maghull, was given 17-and-a-half years. Twenty-nine-year-old Connor Smith, from Maghull, was jailed for seven years and 11 months.

Mark Beeby was then handed 10-and-a-half years last month. The 46-year-old, from Huddersfield, was said to have taken over his brother's Encro phone as he laid low following his arrest.

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