[T]wo friends who met at university have been jailed for more than 17 years for a conspiracy to import potent drugs then sell them for vast profits on the dark web.
Ross Brennan, who masterminded the operation that made around £450,000, was described by a judge as a “sophisticated and arrogant” “21st-century criminal”.
With his friend, computer programmer Aarron Gledhill, he conspired to import fentanyl – which is up to 100 times stronger than heroin – and other drugs from around the world.
Brennan set up an “online supermarket” on the dark web to advertise the wares, and used encryption software to hide transactions.
The substances were posted to thousands of online customers who could leave reviews of the service they received. They paid in Bitcoins – a popular online currency.
Brennan received bitcoins worth a total of between £275,000 and £1.5million (depending on fluctuations in the currency’s value). The average value during their offending period was around £450,000, which was spent lavishly.
He sourced the drugs by post from Vietnam, the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ukraine, Poland and Mexico.
The judge at York Crown Court today sentenced Brennan, of Carrnock Close, Huntington, York to 13 years, eight months in prison.
Gledhill, of Almondbury Bank, Huddersfield, was jailed for three years, nine months.
The pair watched the hearing from prison via a video link.
Both men had no previous convictions and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import and supply class-A drugs and money laundering. Brennan also admitted making and distributing indecent images of children which were found during forensic examinations of his computer.
The court heard that Brennan, 28, played a “leading role” in importing fentanyl and other drugs into the UK.
Thirty-year-old Gledhill’s role was predominantly to receive incoming packages at his home in Huddersfield.
The offences took place between November 2013 and September 2016.
Between June and September 2015 alone, Brennan conducted 225 separate transactions online using a dark web site called AlphaBay, which has since been shut down.
He told an acquaintance he was selling hundreds of bags of drugs “in his sleep”.
In September 2016 police visited Brennan’s address in Huntington, York, and the property was searched. Officers found drugs with a street value of tens of thousands of pounds and mixing equipment.
Brennan was arrested and interviewed but continued to deal while on bail.
He was located and arrested at a flat in Great Northern Street, Huddersfield. Police searched the flat and found more drugs.
During the searches, police also seized a Chemistry for Dummies book, address labels, bags of cutting powder, a mixing machine, a microscope, a set of scales and a number of packages from around the world. Computers and other digital devices were also seized.
The searches led police to Gledhill, who was arrested at his home address in Huddersfield.
The investigation, led by North Yorkshire Police, involved hundreds of police officers and staff and well as the National Crime Agency and neighbouring forces, including West Yorkshire Police.
As part of the investigation, North Yorkshire Police used digital forensics to decode files and recover Skype conversations between Brennan and Gledhill.
In one Skype chat, Brennan hinted that he knew the concoctions of drugs he supplied were potentially fatal.
He said: “I know there are bodies out there on me… if u do thousands n thousands n thousands… you cant help but f*** up one time maybe”.
During the investigation, it was established that three of his customers had died, but it was not clear whether their deaths were linked to the substances they were sold.
Detectives also uncovered evidence that Brennan, who suffers mental health problems, tried to fool police officers who visited early on in the investigation.
He said in a 2016 message to Gledhill: “They came round to mine. I was doing a performance like Tom Hanks in Castaway!”
Detective Inspector Nichola Holden, who led the investigation for North Yorkshire Police, welcomed the “substantial” sentences.
She said: “In what we believe to be the first case of its kind in the UK, Brennan and Gledhill made life-changing sums of money through a sophisticated drugs supermarket on the dark web.
“But every single one of the thousands of transactions could have put lives at risk.
“At one point Brennan recognised that his actions may have led to fatalities. Rather than act on this, he continued the conspiracy to fund his extravagant lifestyle.
“There’s been a lot of recent media coverage about the devastating effects of fentanyl. It’s an extremely dangerous class-A drug. It’s up to 100 times stronger than heroin and even a tiny dose can stop someone’s heart almost instantly.
“I’m confident that Brennan in particular had no doubt about the potential consequences. He was just too greedy, devious and calculating to stop.”
North Yorkshire Police is currently preparing an application under the Proceeds of Crime Act to recover the money Brennan and Gledhill’s conspiracy generated.