Michael Riccio puts head in hands as he's found guilty of plotting 'retribution' shooting

Michael Riccio
Michael Riccio -Credit:National Crime Agency

Michael Riccio has been found guilty of firearms offences after plotting a "retribution" shooting over EncroChat.

The 37-year-old, of Ambleside Road in Allerton, has been on trial at Liverpool Crown Court in connection with his usage of the handle "LeadFern" on the encrypted communications platform. Messages exchanged via the network 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.

Riccio admitted having used the account in order to facilitate the supply of heroin and cocaine, but denied using it to deal in guns. He instead said that other criminals who had access to his device had been responsible for conversations involving firearms.

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But he was convicted of three counts of transferring a prohibited weapon and one of possession of a prohibited weapon by a majority jury of 11 to one this afternoon, Monday. The verdict was delivered after 14 hours and 25 minutes of deliberations.

Jurors also unanimously found him guilty of money laundering. However, they were unable to reach verdicts on two further firearms charges.

The prosecution will not seek a retrial on these counts, and Riccio was remanded into custody ahead of his scheduled sentencing on July 5. He reacted by shaking his head and putting his face in his hands.

Judge Gary Woodhall, who presided over his trial, told him: "I have now got to determine what the appropriate sentence is in this case. You know you are expecting a significant custodial sentence."

Holly Menary told the jury of nine men and three women during the prosecution's opening last month that Riccio, who previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply cocaine and heroin, 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.

Ms Menary said that these messages concerned "Glocks, shottys, shotguns and causing harm with those firearms", including "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 seemingly 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.

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

Jurors were unable to reach verdicts on charges relating to the conversations involving these two accounts.

Further messages with "ApricotShore" were said to have concerned the transfer of a "sprayer", or automatic weapon, for £7,000. The court was 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 and sent a picture of himself in bed "with his feet sticking out from underneath the duvet" inside his own house.

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 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".

The National Crime Agency and Merseyside Police executed a search warrant at Riccio's address on June 30 2020 and found him 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.

Riccio gave evidence to the jury last week. Wearing a navy blue jumper over a light blue shirt and sporting short brown hair, he was sworn in on the bible before being asked by his counsel Anthony Barraclough how many of his associates had used his Encro phone.

He replied "five to six, minimum" and added: "There was only two Encro phones round at the time. ModernPython and LeadFern."

Mr Barraclough asked whether they all knew the password for his device, and he said: "All of them, everyone in the OCG, in case we got arrested. There was only two handsets around, everyone was conducting their own business as well."

The defence barrister said: "Were you, during lockdown, yourself dealing in guns?"

Riccio replied: "No."

Mr Barraclough continued: "Were you yourself seeking a gun?"

Riccio said: "No."

Mr Barraclough: "Were you yourself a person who had previously sold a gun?"

Riccio: "No."

Mr Barraclough: "Did you use that Encro phone for firearms purposes?"

Riccio: "No."

When asked whether he had "creamed off a certain amount" or "imported and made massive amounts" while using the device to trade drugs, he replied: "During lockdown, it was just brokering. I was just in the middle."

Riccio said he would make around £500 to £1,000 per kilogram during these deals. He was asked by Mr Barraclough whether he had kept the £2.5million referenced in the messages "under his bed", "in the wardrobe" or "in the lockup".

To this, he responded: "No, I wouldn't have been selling drugs. I'd be in property, wouldn't I?"

Mr Barraclough put to him: "Are there any messages which have any mention of guns sent by you or received by you?"

Riccio replied: "No."

Mr Barraclough continued: "So far as possession of a Glock, or whatever, in the messages. Were you saying you possessed one?"

Riccio said: "No."

Mr Barraclough: "Were you trying to enforce a debt by the use of a shotty?"

Riccio: "No."

Mr Barraclough: "Were you saying it would be cheaper to use a shotty than a pistol? A Glock, or whatever?"

Riccio: "No."

Mr Barraclough: "If it wasn't you, who was it?"

Riccio: "One of the many others who used the phone."

Holly Menary, prosecuting, then cross-examined the defendant. She put to him that some of the discussions concerning firearms came during a period when he was seemingly isolating with covid, with messages on that device stating that he was alone at home at this time.

Riccio responded: "I still went out walking, bike riding. I don't know, I can't remember.

"I can't explain. It was four years ago.

"Someone could have still been with me though. I might be sitting there drinking, off my barnet."

Ms Menary said: "Do you remember, people were quite frightened of covid?"

Riccio replied: "More people with COPD, and the elderly. Not many people stuck to the rules, did they?"

He was asked about a message during this time in which the handle was used to request to purchase a Glock. Riccio said of this: "He's come to my house.

"He’s only five mins from Allerton. He's come five minutes a day and used the phone.

"They couldn't find him. They brought me in three-and-a-half years later.

"They know who it is. This is all getting put on me."

Judge Gary Woodhall, who is presiding over the trial, asked Riccio to name this person. But he said: "I’m no grass.

"The police know who he is. The amount of pressure on me is unbelievable.

"I can't name the person. It’s not me.

"The National Crime Agency know who the person is, they know it's not me. He come that night and used the phone.

"Other people were using the phone. It's four years ago, I'm surprised you're not asking me what time I ate a meal on that day."

Mr Barraclough then asked in re-examination: "Any mention of firearms is not you?"

Riccio replied: "Not me."

Mr Barraclough continued: "Throughout this, at any stage. If Lead Fern was talking about guns, was that ever you?"

Riccio said: "No. Never."

Charles Lee, acting branch manager for the National Crime Agency, said following today's verdict: "Riccio is an extremely dangerous offender who the evidence showed was actively plotting to shoot three people. The Operation Venetic data has been instrumental in bringing to justice a very large number of criminals who have endangered our communities by trading firearms and class A drugs.

"The NCA works closely with partners such as Merseyside Police and international law enforcement to combat those threats to the UK."

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