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END OF THE LINE FOR DRUGS DUO; Final chapter in clampdown on 22 criminals.

Byline: JOHN SIDDLE

TWO members of a massive drugs gang who fled the country to avoid their imminent arrest were today behind bars.

Michael Collins and John Barton were the last of 22 criminals ensnared in one of Merseyside police's biggest covert operations to be jailed.

The conspiracy unearthed through Operation Webber saw police recover more than 40kg of heroin and cocaine and nearly PS1m in cash.

Officers were today put forward for commendation by the judge who oversaw the case and handed out jail terms totalling 101 years.

Liverpool crown court heard how Collins, 29, and Barton, 37, were key players in the racket and fled to south-east Asia in January knowing that the game was up.

Two weeks later the police made the bulk of their arrests.

Ian Unsworth, QC, prosecuting, said: "Both John Barton and Michael Collins are upper-tier players and have been wanted by police for several months.

"It is believed they remained out of the country for several months.

"Barton's passport bears the stamp of January 11. It is believed that he has been out of the country since around that date.

"It is believed that Michael Collins has been out of the UK since around the same date, probably January 19, a few days after the birth of his child.

"It is clear that they had travelled to Cambodia during that period. It is obvious that they must have had access to money and accommodation.

"On July 29, 2012, they were arrested at Manchester airport. They had flown there from Thailand and were arrested as they disembarked the aircraft. Through their legal representatives, both men had notified police of their intention to return in advance." Like the gang members jailed last week, both Collins and Barton lived the life of luxury.

Barton, who owed the taxman some PS82,000, owned several properties and cars.

He spent thousands on luxury holidays to Sharm El Sheik and Cancun.

Mr Unsworth said: "A cursory glance at his passport confirms that John Barton is a man not unfamiliar with foreign travel.

His globetrotting activities took him to North America, Europe and the Far East."

Barton, who was found to have 19 different mobile phones, was near the very top of the gang's hierarchy, the court heard.

Of Collins, Mr Unsworth said: "His presence at important top-level meetings suggests that he was someone who had an organisational or planning role."

Surveillance of the gang began in late 2010 and over an 18-month period police observed nearly two dozen people either handing on drugs and cash, laundering the profits or 'bashing' high purity drugs down to street level deals.

Over the course of nearly a dozen raids officers recovered 27kg of heroin, 14.6kg of cocaine, 2kg of cannabis, 2kg of amphetamine, PS970,000 in cash and a firearm.

Mr Unsworth said: "The drugs trafficked in this case led to huge rewards. Some of those lived the good life on the profits derived from their activities."

Judge Stephen Clarke sentenced Barton, of Sandforth Road, West Derby, to eight and a half years in jail and Collins, of Vauxhall Road, Kirkdale, to six years behind bars. Both men had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply class A drugs. They were also given six-year foreign travel bans.

Judge Clarke heaped praise on police for their meticulous work in bringing the gang to justice.

He said: "It is a remarkable case in that not one of the 22 defendants had a trial, which shows the quality of the police work in this particular instance."

CAPTION(S):

avoid arrest for their part in a large-scale drugs ring
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Sep 22, 2012
Words:603
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