The National Crime Agency used messages sent by ringleader Danyal Aziz to prove he kept a loaded Skorpion machine pistol to threaten rivals.
Two drug gang members found guilty of possessing a machine gun to intimidate rival criminals have been jailed, after a court heard ammunition for the weapon was stored underneath a bed where a child slept.
Video of the Skorpion machine pistol being test-fired under laboratory conditions was released by investigators after ring-leader Danyal Aziz was jailed for 33 years, and his “right-hand man” Michael Earp was handed a 26-year sentence by judge Roderick Henderson at Birmingham Crown Court on Friday.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and National Crime Agency (NCA) also released a picture of the weapon hidden in a carrier bag under the bed of Earp’s cousin Nicole Rhone, a single mother, who was jailed for five years.
The three were all charged after an inquiry during a Covid lockdown in 2020 which suggested the gang handled heroin and cocaine with a wholesale value of about £2.5 million over a three-month period.
Jurors at Birmingham Crown Court convicted Aziz, 29, of Pelham Road, Stechford: Earp, 32, of Pear Tree Road, Shard End, and Earp’s cousin Rhone, 29, of Yardley Green Road, Bordesley Green, after hearing how investigators gained access to more than 20,000 encrypted messages.
As well as the loaded Skorpion firearm found at Rhone’s home, underneath the bed she slept in with her young son, the inquiry showed the gang also had access to three pistols stored at a rented flat in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
The NCA said the group used EncroChat in the belief they were operating under the radar.
In one of the messages, Aziz, going by the handle Lushmace, discusses a gun and bullets in his possession and using it against customers who owe him money.
He wrote: “I got 50 sweets [bullets] on me and strap [gun] by my yard, I feel like doing a madness right now.”
NCA investigators also found photos of bullets compatible with a Skorpion sub-machine gun on Aziz’s handset, and messages sent later said he was “going to get the SK tuned up” – a reference to a Skorpion.
In others he discussed drugs, the money he was making, and messaged criminal associates about buying as many kilos of cocaine as he could, in anticipation of the price rising due to Covid lockdown restrictions.
NCA officers found that Aziz was in charge of the group and directed Earp, known as Kneetown, where to deliver drugs money and requested regular updates on his stocks of drugs.
Earp’s car was also searched and NCA officers discovered a large void behind the radio unit where airbags should have been stored.
The makeshift cocaine “hide” had been lined with silver tape and metal was welded in place to the back of the radio to secure it.
Aziz was convicted of conspiracy to supply cocaine, conspiracy to supply heroin, two counts of possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life, two counts of possession of a prohibited firearm, two counts of possession of prohibited ammunition and money laundering.
Jurors found Earp guilty of conspiracy to supply cocaine, conspiracy to supply heroin, two counts of possession of a prohibited firearm, possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life and two counts of possession of prohibited ammunition.
Rhone, who was described in court as “vulnerable”, was convicted of possession of a prohibited firearm and possession of prohibited ammunition.
Speaking after they were jailed on Friday, Kelly Matthews, CPS unit head for serious, economic organised crime, said of the inquiry: “It involved painstaking work by the investigators and the prosecutors to piece together the criminality that the gang were undertaking.
“A message sent suggested that the Skorpion sub-machine gun was collected along with ‘sweets’ – a reference to bullets – for use to intimidate a rival gang they thought might steal money from them.”
The three were arrested as part of Operation Venetic, the NCA’s response to the use of encrypted phones by criminal gangs.
NCA Branch Commander Mick Pope said: “Most worryingly in this case a Skorpion machine gun was seized.
“That gun was found in the defendant Nicole Rhone’s house, under a bed. That was discovered during a search done by NCA officers along with support from West Midlands Police.
“The patterns of how the bullets are discharged from the weapon – they spread. If that had been used on the streets of Birmingham it would have presented a massive risk to the public.
“It was found in what looked like a shopping bag. Within the same premises we had a box of ammunition that was found in a child’s bedroom, which fitted that gun.”
Describing the circumstances in which the gun, which had the potential to cause “massive” risk to the public, was seized as shocking, Mr Pope added: “We know that kids are quite inquisitive.
“I dread to think what would have happened if that gun had been discovered by the child, and they had picked it up.
“That could have caused injury, not only to that child but other people who may have come into that house as well.”
Jailing Aziz, who was unrepresented after sacking his defence counsel during the trial, and Earp, Judge Henderson said: “Anyone who gets involved in dealing class A drugs gets themselves in a situation where they are playing for high stakes – the rewards are high but penalties are high too.
“When drug dealers possess a machine pistol, it is highly likely it is not just competitors who are at risk – it is often entirely innocent members of the public who are killed and injured, although there is no evidence in this case that it was fired.
“Possession of a loaded machine pistol is an offence of enormous danger. It has a very high rate of fire and a much larger magazine and would likely lead to the injury of people who have nothing to do with the drugs trade.”
Sentencing Rhone, Judge Henderson added: “I accept that she is a vulnerable person. She was plainly exploited by more sophisticated people.
“No doubt having this case hanging over her has caused her distress, but I reject any proposition that she could not have known what she was involved with.
“I have no doubt anyone handling it would know what it is. It was a truly deadly weapon.”