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Byline: By BRENDA HICKMAN Crime Reporter

A MULTI-million-pound drugs network flooding Tyneside with cocaine has been smashed by police.

It took three years from the start of the complex Operation Banjo, to the last key player being jailed at Newcastle Crown Court yesterday.

Dozens of villains at various levels were discovered supplying Class-A drugs on Tyneside during the police strike - the biggest ring connected to a Colombian cartel.

It started with police infiltrating the inner circles of local dealers. One undercover officer in particular, codenamed Vinnie, was praised by Judge Michael Cartlidge for his bravery.

Det Supt Ian Groom, who headed the inquiry, said: "Pure-grade cocaine was coming to Tyneside from a cartel based in London. The arrests ranged from those dealing drugs at street level to wholesale suppliers.

"I'm certain police activity has severely disrupted those involved in the supply of cocaine throughout Tyneside and the top-end sentences should serve as reminder to those of the consequences of dealing in Class-A drugs."

Colombian Osmiro Mendez, a jeweller and emerald dealer, who ran a shop in Front Street, Whickham, Gateshead, was cleared of a charge of conspiracy to supply cocaine at the Crown Court.

George Youness, known as The Fixer, was convicted of his part in the conspiracy and jailed for a total of 17 years.

Those targeted in the Northumbria Police investigation ranged from Colombian drugs barons, to a Tyneside millionaire's son and the former boss of Newcastle restaurant The Godfather, a renowned chef, and a garage owner dealing drugs on his premises.

Det Supt Groom said: "This was one of the most complex and meticulous operations undertaken by the force.

"The cases have gone through Newcastle Crown Court in stages, and some defendants have chosen to change the legal teams, which has resulted in further delays."

It emerged in the latest trial that former Newcastle United forward Tino Asprilla had met Mr Mendez and Italian chef and restaurateur Franco Pizzuti.

Pizzuti, it was said in court, told the undercover officer that Asprilla was "involved in the supply of drugs". But detectives never linked the soccer star with the cocaine supply conspiracy, and he was never arrested or questioned.

Mr Mendez, 38, came to Tyneside 11 years ago as a result of his friendship with Asprilla, who signed for United in February 1996. The Colombian national, formerly of Bradley Bungalows, Con-sett, had denied conspiracy to supply cocaine. He had been jointly charged with career criminal Youness.

In sentencing Youness, 51, of Angus Close, Killingworth, Judge Cartlidge said: "George Youness is in my view the most deceitful, deceptive, dishonest, greedy, selfish and ruthless person I have come across in a long time. Nobody should trust anything he says".

The judge added: "Vinnie describes George Youness as testing his skills as an undercover officer to the absolute limit. He was the most difficult subject he has ever had to deal with, and Vinnie has considerable experience as an undercover officer.

"I accept Vinnie's evidence that he fought a constant battle to retain control of the operation. He gave George Youness opportunities to stop being involved, but these were declined.

"George Youness has a limited number of convictions, but from the evidence in this case it's obvious he is well connected and well known in the criminal underworld."

Set up to track down and disrupt the supply of the Class-A drug to Tyneside, Operation Banjo was to discover a major Colombian supply ring, and other separate networks involving locals. The spin-off police raids led to others being charged and convicted.

They were all targeted in a series of raids resulting in 29 arrests in one week over three days in October 2005.

Youness, could introduce and gain access to drugs dealers at all levels on Tyneside .

Mr Mendez denied a charge of conspiracy to supply Class-A drugs, while Youness denied two of conspiracy to supply cocaine, two of being concerned in the supply of drugs and five of directly supplying drugs himself.

Youness claimed he was working in conjunction with undercover police all along, having previously fed them information about the murder of restaurateur and drug dealer Peter Beaumont Gowling on St Valentine's Day 2001.

But the court was told Youness was no longer helping as an official source by the time he got involved with Vinnie.

Vinnie's role brought him into contact with some of Tyneside's hardmen, including John Henry Sayers.

Youness's son, Jason, of Kenilworth Road, Ashington, earlier pleaded guilty to being concerned in the supply of cocaine and was given a 12-month community reparation order.

The Chronicle revealed in May last year that police were hunting a suspected Colombian drugs dealer in connection with the conspiracy, who has still not been traced.

Hooded and looking nervous, the suspect was caught on CCTV and Northumbria police appealed on BBC's Crimewatch UK programme for help in finding find him. Based in London, and known as Xavier, he was pictured in the back of a car at Clapham Common Tube station, in September, as an alleged pounds 120,000 cocaine deal took place with other men.

In another level of Operation Banjo, police arrested the son of a Tyneside millionaire in connection with conspiracy to supply cocaine. Simon Daniel Morgan, of a hairdressing salon in Queen Street, Newcastle, was charged with the Class-A drugs offence.

Morgan - known as Danny, 26, of Grey Street, Newcastle - had told the Chronicle at the time of his arrest: "I'll be strenuously denying the charge."

Morgan was given an 18-month community order when he admitted his role in supplying cocaine.

Former boss of Newcastle's The Godfather restaurant in Market Street, Sicilian-born Alex Cuscani, 56, was also caught in the police operation. The former chairman of Gateshead Football Club, was jailed for seven and half years for drugs offences.

Santo Cuscani, also known as Alex Cuscani, of Jesmond Place, Jesmond, Newcastle admitted conspiracy to supply cocaine between August 18, 2004, and October 11, 2005, when he appeared at Newcastle Crown Court in April last year. He was initially given a six-and-a half year jail term - which was increased by a year on appeal.

Another businessman caught in the cocaine crackdown was 39-year-old Charlie Armstrong, 39, of Holyfields, West Allotment, North Tyneside.

As the boss of C A Autos & Exhausts on North Shields' Meadow Well estate, he had the perfect front as a legitimate tradesman. But Det Supt Groom said: "Armstrong was a significant cocaine dealer in his own right. The garage was being used as a front for his drugs dealings.

"Our inquiries revealed supplies of the Class-A drug were being supplied from the premises."

Armstrong admitted conspiracy to supply at a separate hearing and was jailed for a six and a half years.

Last year, the CPS thought that some sentences were unduly lenient and asked the Attorney General to consider referring them to the Court of Appeal. As a result the sentences for Cuscani, Armstrong, Nichol and Bonnett were increased.

CPS lawyer Kingsley Hyland said: "The drugs recovered in this case, the successful court outcomes and the sentences passed demonstrate the benefits of properly targeted, properly supervised and skilfully implemented covert operations which present huge challenges for investigators and prosecutors alike. I would also fully endorse the judge's public comments about the principal undercover officer in this case."


THESE were all involved in the drug scam:

George Youness, pictured, 51, of Angus Close, Killingworth, jailed for 17 years.

Santo Thomasso (Alex) Cuscani, 58, Jesmond Place, Jesmond, Newcastle, seven-and-a-half years for conspiracy to supply cocaine.

Franco Pizzuti, 47, of Cornhill Avenue, Fawdon, Newcastle, three years for conspiracy to supply cocaine.

David Raine, 38, of Benwell Road, Benwell, Newcastle, six years for supplying cocaine.

Jonathan Bonnett, 35, of Redewood Close, Slaty-ford, Newcastle, supplying cocaine, four years jail.

Charles Armstrong, 39, of Holyfields, West Allotment, North Tyneside, conspiracy to supply cocaine, given six and a half years.

Lee Cheetham, 28, of Abbeyvale Drive, Walker, Newcastle, conspiracy to supply cocaine, received three and a half years.

Stephen Rice, 40, of St John's Court, Benwell, Newcastle, was given six and a half years for conspiracy to supply cocaine. Rice was convicted of manslaughter following the 1995 shooting of Francis Kelly, gunned down at Christmas in Macey's pub in Newcastle's Groat Market. He was jailed for eight years.

Vittorio De Giovanni, 48, of Dunsmuir Grove, Bensham, Gateshead, supplying cocaine, four years imprisonment.

Kenneth Brown, 35, of Philip Place, Arthurs Hill, Newcastle, concerned in supply of cocaine, four years' jail and an additional 12 months for a previous unserved matter.

John Conley, 30, from North Tyneside, concerned in supply of cocaine, three years imprisonment.

Lee Duden, 32, from North Tyneside, supplying cocaine, two years three months imprisonment.

Lee Nichol, 34, of Victoria Street West, Newcastle, being concerned in supply of cocaine, two and a half years.

Anthea Robinson, 30, of Walton Road, Denton, Newcastle, supplying cocaine, two years three months imprisonment.

John Docherty, 27, of West Bank, Wirral, Mersey-side, supplying cocaine, two years three months jail term.

Andrew Price, 31, of Cambridge Road, Stakeford, Ashington, concerned in supplying cocaine, 18 months imprisonment

Giuseppe Giacomini, 47, of The Fold, Whitley Bay, offered to supply cocaine, one year imprisonment

Carlo Giacomini, 27, of Whitley Road, Whitley Bay, offered to supply cocaine - nine months imprisonment.

Michael Patterson, 22, of Highfield Terrace, Walker, Newcastle, supplying cocaine, 12 months Community Punishment and Rehabilitation Order

Ricardo Sanjuan, 24, of Sedley Road, Wallsend, supply class A drugs, 240-hours Community Punishment Order.

Jason Youness, 31, of Kenilworth Road, Ashington, concerned in the supply of cocaine, 12 months Community Reparation Order

Paul Giles, 33, of Dene Crescent, Wallsend, supplying Ecstasy, 12-months CRO

Jason Milligan, 37, of Marondale Avenue, Walker, Newcastle, concerned in supply, two-year CRO.

Christen Ferry, 31, of Millbank Road, Walker, Newcastle, supplied class A drugs, 240 hours Community Punishment Order.

William Christie, 41, of Marlborough Court, Kingston Park, Newcastle, supplying cocaine, fined pounds 200.

William Thompson, 25, Westway, Throckley, Newcastle, supplying MDMA, 18 months Drug Treatment and Testing Order

Simon (Danny) Morgan, 28, of Grey Street, Newcastle, supplying cocaine 18 months community order.

"George Youness is in my view the most deceitful, deceptive, dishonest, greedy, selfish and ruthless person I have come across in a long time. Nobody should trust anything he says - Judge Michael Cartlidge


COVER: The C A Autos & Exhausts business was used as a centre to supply cocaine on Tyneside; MANHUNT: Suspect Xavier; CLEARED: Mr Mendez, left, and John Henry Sayers; COCAINE HAUL: Tino Asprilla and some of the money and drugs seized by detectives in the operation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 21, 2007
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