Thomas Kavanagh - 'The Gaffer' with cash hidden in designer handbags, sentencing hears


CRIME boss Thomas "Bomber" Kavanagh (above) had thousands of pounds in cash stashed in designer handbags found in his gated mansion which was protected by bulletproof glass, a court heard today.

Kavanagh was known as "The Gaffer" by subordinates during a "highly sophisticated" conspiracy to import hundreds of tonnes of cocaine and cannabis into the UK from Europe hidden inside lorries, Ipswich Crown Court was told.

Kavanagh, 54, from the mansion in Tamworth, Staffordshire, is being sentenced alongside lieutenant Gary Vickery, 39, and his brother-in-law Daniel Canning, 43, both from Solihull, for their respective roles in the plot 20 months after they pleaded guilty to drug importation and money laundering offences.

The prosecution was held up by coronavirus travel restrictions after Vickery and Canning left the country after being released on unconditional bail and legal arguments over the amounts of drugs involved, the court heard.

Vickery also had to be arrested and brought back from the Canaries after refusing to return. A fourth suspect, Martin Byrne, died from lung cancer in August 2018 before he could be charged.

Ipswich Crown Court heard today that when Kavanagh's gated mansion was searched (above: NCA) after he was arrested flying in from Mexico to Birmingham in January 2019, it had nearly £40,000 of cash stashed around it, including sterling, Euros, US dollars and United Arab Emirates Dirham, with some stored in designer Moschino and Chanel handbags. There was also a hoard of weapons in the bedroom, including knives and coshes, and a stun gun disguised as a torch (below: NCA) in the kitchen, with bullet-proof glass on the ground floor.

Prosecutor Riel Karmy Jones QC said: "Kavanagh was at the top of the operation. He gave instructions to Vickery that were passed to Canning. Mr Kavanagh was aware of Canning and his role and both referred to him as The Gaffer - the boss. "His general standard of living, the property, the bulletproof glass, weapons and the amount of cash indicate his high role in the hierarchy."

The four were incriminated by a trail of evidence and National Crime Agency (NCA) surveillance that linked them to 23 lorry loads brought into the country between October 2016 and October 2017, including industrial premises used for the importations rented in some of their names, paperwork, GPS trackers used to monitor the loads and emails and text messages, the court heard.

The investigation into Kavanagh's group was sparked by a major seizure by Irish gardai in Dublin in January 2017, when police seized a significant amount of firearms and class A drugs.

Documents found during that investigation identified a West Midlands-based freight transport company connected to the Kavanagh group.

Ms Karmy Jones said a lorry containing 15kgs of cocaine, with a street value of £1.2m, and 200kgs of cannabis, worth £2m on the streets, was later intercepted by the Border Force at Dover on October 2 2017 (above: NCA). The drugs were hidden inside two specially adapted tarmac removal machines that had been sent from Germany. Also inside one of the machines was a GPS magnetic tracker that the organised crime group was using to keep tabs on the delivery that was destined for an industrial unit in Wednesbury, near Birmingham, that was leased by Canning in his real name since February 2016. Once the drugs were removed from the machines, they were filled with cash, which was sent back with the lorries to pay for further consignments, the court heard.

Ms Karmy Jones said: “The investigation by the NCA uncovered that drugs were being imported into the UK from mainland Europe concealed within items of machinery and delivered by legitimate transportation and logistics companies.

“Once at their destination in the UK, the drugs would be removed, and the machinery reloaded with cash, which in turn was carried back to mainland Europe in payment for the drugs.

"This was a highly sophisticated operation, involving an enormous commercial quantity of cocaine and cannabis, crossing a number of geographical borders, to be bought and sold for substantial gain.” NCA officers searched this unit the following day and found a Smith & Wesson 357 revolver with 85 rounds of ammunition hidden inside an adapted lead-lined transformer found in a wooden crate.

DNA on the transformer and a holdall containing the gun (above: NCA) matched Canning, while Byrne's DNA was found on part of the gun and a carrier bag in the holdall, along with that of five other unidentified people. Also found at the unit were spray paint cans that matched the paint used on the modified tarmac machines from the Dover seizure and nine other magnetic GPS tracking devices with related sim cards. In July 2020 Kavanagh, Vickery and Canning pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import class A and class B drugs and money laundering. Canning also admitted unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition in connection with the revolver. Evidence also led the NCA to a Midlands industrial unit being leased by Byrne in his own name that contained items used in connection with the machinery conversions including the adapted transformer at Canning's unit. Searches were carried out at the homes of Canning, Byrne and Vickery first before Kavanagh was arrested months later. Substantial amounts of cash in British and Scottish notes and Euros were found at Vickery's address hidden in bundles in the master bedroom totalling nearly £200,000. There were also several mobile phones, including an encrypted device, and evidence linking him to the GPS tracking devices, including instructions from the specialist spy shop where they were bought and a list of polish phone numbers and sim cards, including the one found at the Dover seizure. In the garage were five 25kg tubs of boric acid that can be used as a cutting agent for cocaine. At Canning's home and in his car were a total of around £3,700 cash plus a number of phones including a device for sending encrypted emails.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Kavanagh, Canning and Vickery

Byrne's home had a number of phones and a copy of the lease to the industrial unit. The trackers were sourced from Poland by a mystery Polish national, who was based in Ireland with a business in Barcelona, and referred to only as Z in court as he remains at large. Kavanagh and the group were in contact with a Romanian national based in Germany in connection with the imports, who is now facing prosecution in Germany. Only one load of drugs was intercepted, but NCA investigators were able to piece together the movements of 22 other consignments that were not intercepted from GPS tracking data, emails and messages found on their devices and surveillance. Packages of cannabis were labelled as "Rolex" or "Manchester United" with cocaine marked as "54" or "TNT". Investigators had to navigate through the code words they used for the trade, including packages of cannabis called jackets, packages of cocaine as phones, cash as paper, hot for Spain and flat for the Netherlands. They also used nicknames on the phones with Kavanagh also known as "Plasma", Vickery called "Jelly" and Canning "Smiley".

Kavanah tried to keep out of the day-to-day running of the operation, another indicator he was at the top of the tree, according to Ms Karmy Jones and limited messages from him were found.

But, the court heard Kavanagh and Vickery (below from Facebook) went on a celebratory trip to New York, with the latter sending a picture to his wife of himself, Kavanagh and others before saying: “Haha this is worth the money.”

There were also meetings in a Birmingham hotel.

Kavanagh has 16 previous convictions in the UK and Ireland dating back to 1985.

These include convictions in Ireland for burglary, possessing firearms and ammunition without a certificate, and assault and fraud and the stungun possession in the UK.

Kieran Vaughan QC, defending Kavanagh, said he pleaded guilty only on the basis that the conspiracy was already up and running when he became involved in March 2017 and he only accepts being involved in three of the consignments.

He said Kavanagh accepted directing Vickery (above being arrested in the Canaries) and Canning in their roles, but claimed others who have not been charged had been involved throughout with someone who was not identified above him in the chain. He suggested 20 years as a starting point, but he argued for time off due to mitigation. He argued the father of six, who has two grandchildren, was a "pivotal member of the family" and a "loving father" who had fundraised for a young cancer sufferer to go a trip to Disney Land, Florida, and then given her a significant amount of money instead when she was too ill to travel. In 2019, Kavangh was jailed for three years for possession of the disguised stun gun found at his property and has been inside ever since due to the ongoing case. Mr Vaughan argued he should have 25 per cent of any sentence reduced due to having to endure prison through the entire coronavirus [pandemic. He said: "He was unable to leave his cell for 14 days at a time with no visits from family members and he also caught Covid and was hospitalised given his symptoms were so severe." The court heard Kavanagh also fears press interest in the case could see the judge impose a stiffer than necessary sentence. Mr Vaughan said: "For the benefit of Mr Kavanagh and his family, one point that troubles them is that your honour may be in some way unduly influenced by the press interest in this case. "I have told Mr Kavanagh and his family that this is something they don't have to fear and they can have complete and utter confidence you will deal with the case fairly and squarely on the facts presented."

Canning was often told to travel to Europe at short notice to arrange shipments, but was still regarded as having a leading role in the organisation. Richard Furlong, representing Canning, also complained of press interest, saying that while on bail in Ireland he had been door stepped and photographed with a long lens. The court heard he has no previous convictions and had worked as a mechanic prior to getting involved in the plot after moving to the UK in 2015.

The sentence continues on Monday.