ENCROCHAT HACK: Major trial due after 11 defendants deny 56 charges at Liverpool Crown Court


PROSECUTORS are gearing up for a major Encrochat trial after 11 men pleaded not guilty to a string of offences, including drug supply and production, firearms supply and money laundering.

The CPS has been pushing people charged under Operation Venetic to enter early guilty pleas to avoid large numbers of lengthy trials.

However, at a Liverpool Crown Court hearing all 11 defendants denied the combined total of 56 charges they face.

The charges followed the seizure by police of large amounts of chemicals and substances alleged to have been for the production of drugs after raids on industrial units in Aintree and North Wales last summer (pictured below).

Merseyside Police estimated the haul was capable of producing more than 3,000 kilos of amphetamine sulphate.

Officers later raided homes across Merseyside on February 11 and said property, including "high-end jewellery" and cash was seized.

Anthony Saunderson, 40, Paul Mount, 37, Darren Owens, 46, of Knowsley Lane, Huyton, Kieran Hartley, 30, of Moss Side, Knotty, Ash, Stephen Shearwood, 37, of Sankey Road, Maghull, David Kelly, 42, of Downholland business park, Ormskirk, Lee Walsh, 42, of Boyer Avenue, Maghull, James Dunn, 34, of Sandy Lane, Walton, and Lee Eccles, 31, of Mersey Avenue, Maghull, are each charged with three counts

of conspiring together and with other persons unknown to produce a quantity of class B amphetamine.

These offences are said to have taken lace between July 22 2019 and February 11 this year.

The same men, plus Michael Pope, 34, of Whinney Grove West, Maghull, and Connor Smith, 27, of Derby Grove, Maghull, also face one charge each of conspiracy to supply class B amphetamines and another count each of conspiracy to supply class A cocaine and heroin between the same dates.

Saunderson, Mount, Owens, Hartley, Shearwood, Kelly, Eccles, Pope and Smith between are charged with conspiracy to supply a quantity of class B ketamine, mephedrone (MCAT), diazepam and cannabis between the same dates.

Saunderson, Owens, Hartley and Eccles are accused of conspiracy to produce ketamine, MCAT and diazepam between the same dates.

Smith faces a charge of conspiracy with others unknown to produce class B cannabis between April 1 and July 23 2020.

Mount, 37, of Summerwood Gardens, Halsall, is also accused of between March 26 and April 2 2020, conspiring to acquire an illegal Glock pistol and ammunition.

Mount and Smith face a charge each of, between March 26 2020 and February 11 2021, conspiring together to convert criminal property, namely monies from the supply of class A and B drugs, by paying it into personal bank accounts and business account for Lean Sports shop.

Saunderson, from Callan Crescent, Formby, is charged between March 29 and April 1 2020 to conspiring with other persons to supply weapons and ammunition, including Grandpower handguns, Glock pistols, CZ handguns and associated ammunition.

A hearing last month heard Hartley and Owens are due to be tried separately in October, but an application by them to dismiss the charges will be heard in September.

The remaining nine defendants are set to face trial in January 2022.

Nine defendants have been remanded in custody, except Dunne and Walsh who were released on conditional bail.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) led Operation Venetic was launched after French and Dutch police hacked into supposedly secure encrypted Encrochat mobile phone system in April 2020.

The hack led to the UK's biggest ever operation against suspected organised criminals that has so far seen more than 1,500 arrests and scores of raids and seizures of drugs, cash and firearms across the UK in a series of unconnected operations across the country that have led to hundreds of charges.

Encrochat was being used by around 50,000 people worldwide, including about 9,000 in the UK.

Dutch and French law enforcement allowed police forces across Europe, including in the UK, access to the previously sent and new "real time" messaging between suspected organised crime groups before the raids started.

Encrochat shut itself down when it discovered the hack in June after people began being charged.

The NCA has continued to make arrests and charge people under Operation Venetic while a series of legal challenges over the admissibility of evidence from the Encrochat devices rumble on.

A number of trials have already collapsed for evidential reasons.

The NCA has said that Encrochat was exclusively used by criminals, but disclosures during initial hearings seen by Essex News and Investigations suggest that the agency was alerted to some celebrities using Encrochat and the possibility of others using the system to conduct extra-marital affairs.

Separately, in Albania an investigative journalist came forward to say he had used Encrochat to communicate with criminal sources.

During hearings in Europe it has been alleged MPs and lawyers had also used the service and legally privileged information may have been viewed by law enforcement.