Michael Riccio accused of sourcing guns for 'retribution' on 'WhatsApp for criminals'

Michael Riccio allegedly sought to source guns over EncroChat as he plotted a "retribution" shooting.

The 37-year-old, of Melbreck Road in Allerton, went on trial at Liverpool Crown Court today accused of firearms offences. Messages exchanged via the encrypted communications platform were said to have shown his efforts to acquire a shotgun "to give someone a leggy" while amassing £2.5million in old £20 notes as he trafficked weapons and drugs.

Holly Menary told a jury of nine men and three women during the prosecution's opening on Tuesday that Riccio had "operated a business buying and selling drugs and guns, sometimes for tens and thousands of pounds at a time". He was described as having "conducted his business" via EncroChat, which was compared to a "WhatsApp for criminals", before the service was infiltrated by the French police during 2020.

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Riccio admits having used the handle "LeadFern" on the network, but says he only did so in order to trade heroin and cocaine and claims that the device was also utilised by other criminals who were responsible for the discussions involving firearms. Ms Menary says these messages concerned "Glocks, shottys, shotguns and causing harm with those firearms".

This included "needing a shotgun to give someone a leggy". The prosecution counsel said of this: "In other words, to shoot them in the leg."

Jurors heard of several examples of communications recovered by law enforcement authorities during the spring of 2020, including a conversation concerning Glock and CZ semi-automatic pistols with the user "FearlessCheetah". These apparently saw Lead Fern "attempt to buy back" firearms which he had previously sold to the same associate.

The messages began with Lead Fern asking: "Can I buy Glock back mate?"

Fearless Cheetah replied: "Gonna keep it mate."

Lead Fern then said: "Just one back mate. I need if you spare it back."

Fearless Cheetah told him: "Only got one Glock off you didn't I. The rest were CZs."

Lead Fern: "Have you got CZ sale back mate?"

Fearless Cheetah: "CZ not mine. Sorry mate. You sell everything, not leave yourself any?”

Lead Fern: "No, I got a few left mate. Just need a few more. I get from my other pal. Bought 20 mate, I’ll have more soon too."

Fearless Cheetah: "Yeah, get on us if you get any more."

Lead Fern: "Will do mate."

Another discussion with "TimelyBeta" was also said to have centred on Lead Fern "buying back a Glock that he had previously sold to him". The handle was meanwhile used to speak with "WeirdGun" about acquiring a Glock and Glock 17.

Further messages with "ApricotShore" were alleged to have concerned the transfer of a "sprayer", or automatic weapon, for £7,000. The buyer, a third party, was said to have still owed £3,000 of this purchase price.

The court was also read a message sent from Lead Fern to "Elephant Water" on May 12, which said: “I’m trying to get three shottys if can help. Going leg three people. Only got Glock. Waste them in legging someone."

Ms Menary said of this: "The crown say this shows Lead Fern trying to source three shotguns, a less valuable firearm than a Glock, because he doesn't want to waste the Glock in legging someone. That is, shooting them in the leg or bottom as retribution."

The handle was also used to ask for "shottys" from contacts including "VioletBrick", "RockKiller", "MadeiraBlue", "ToughBear" and "Castle Winter". In one message, Lead Fern told the latter: "Just need to make people pay faster".

When "ScarWars" asked whether he was "having beef again", the user replied: "Shottys give someone nudge. Pay faster.".

Another contact "VanDeBeek" meanwhile asked whether he had "any tools going". Lead Fern said in response that he "needed shottys himself" but would "have Glocks again soon".

Ms Menary also cited a message to "LeeryRocket" on April 12, in which Lead Fern said: "Mate, I had 2.5 million old 20 pound notes. Can you swap new notes in UK mate?"

Jurors were told that Riccio was linked to the account after apparently referencing his birthday and associates noting the anniversary of his father's death on May 1 2020. He was meanwhile said to have given out his mum's home address on Melbreck Road and sent a picture of himself in bed "with his feet sticking out from underneath the duvet" inside his own house on Ambleside Road in Allerton.

Ms Menary said he had also sent a contact a "selfie to show that he had lost a tooth" on May 4. She added: "Members of the jury, if there was any doubt remaining in your mind that Michael Riccio was the user of the handle Lead Fern then perhaps this should give you some clarity."

Associates were also said to have stored the handle under his supposed nickname "Little". Jurors heard that the handle had been used by a "person only known as someone called Silver" on "three separate and distinct occasions" when he had been "allowed to borrow it" in order to communicate with "WigglyMutant".

Ms Menary adds: "It is clear that, at the times this other person, Silver, uses the handle, they would do what you would expect. They introduce themselves when they begin to speak."

The National Crime Agency and Merseyside Police executed a search warrant at the Ambleside Road address on June 30 2020 and found Riccio, who wore a black jumper over a white shirt in the dock and sported short mousey brown hair, upstairs "washing his hands in the sink in the bathroom". The toilet beside him was "draining" at the time, with the seat being "covered in white powder".

The defendant said that this substance "wasn't illegal", but told the officers that they would find £800 in cash and a quantity of "charlie" in a cupboard above the microwave in his kitchen. Riccio was subsequently released under investigation, but was then detained again when firearms officers stopped his silver Ford Fiesta on Prescot Road in Old Swan shortly after 10.30pm on October 24 last year.

Ms Menary concluded her opening by saying: "The defendant denies that he is the user of the EncroChat handle Lead Fern whenever that user is talking about firearms. It is the prosecution's case that he is the user, just as he is the user when Lead Fern is talking about the supply of drugs."

Riccio, who is defended by Anthony Barraclough, denies 12 firearms offences and one count possession of criminal property, having pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply heroin and cocaine. The trial, before Judge Gary Woodhall, continues.

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