A Co Tyrone man caught ‘red-handed’ running a £500,000 cocaine factory is a British Army veteran.
Ashley McLean served seven years in the British Army and did tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and 'closer to home' a Crown Court judge heard on Thursday.
The Sunday World newspaper revealed the 36-year-old also served five years as a prison officer before turning to a life of crime.
On Thursday the disgraced army veteran was jailed for four-and-a-half-years alongside his baby-faced drug dealing pal Corey Leonard in what the judge described as a “seismic fall from grace”.
McLean, from Deverney Park, Omagh and 26-year-old Leonard were caught in the act when cops swooped on their cocaine factory in March 2021.
Mechanic Leonard, of Arvalee Road, Omagh and McLean were told they must serve two years in custody and the remaining two and a half years on licence.
The pair pleaded guilty months ago at Dungannon Crown Court to charges of possession of the Class A drug cocaine with intent to supply.
They had initially been charged in the Magistrates’ Court with having illegal firearms and ammunition, but those charges were withdrawn before the case made it to the upper court.
When police raided the cocaine factory both men were discovered to be in the garage.
Cops unearthed 2.5 kgs of Cocaine and approximately 9kgs of cutting agent which police said would have a street value of £500,000.
The officers also found 900 deal bags and other assorted drug related paraphernalia.
The remote rented bungalow, which was then the home of McLean’s former partner, seemed an ideal setting for a secret drugs hideaway and was situated a few miles out of Fintona, Co Tyrone.
The Rahony Road drug den was so hard find that when the Sunday World went looking for it, neighbours said until it was raided by the cops they were tortured by people lost and looking for the house where they could get their next hit.
Underworld sources told the Sunday World the cocaine had been sourced from Dublin and it’s almost certain that someone touted to police about the factory’s whereabouts.
In the preparation of their pre-sentence reports both made the case they were only in temporary possession of the drugs for someone else.
They claimed they were only in it for easy cash which in Leonard's case they claimed was £2,000 and McClean just £1,000.
The judge stated they had allowed premises to be used for transit of drugs.
Defence barrister Ian Turkington, instructed by Padrhraic Cunningham, told the court that McLean spent seven years in the British Army with tenures in Iraq, Afghanistan and 'closer to home'.
Mr Turkington said, “Those who serve their county, whichever country, are seen as giving good service”.
He added that McClean also served as a prison officer for five years and was 'seriously' assaulted during that time.
Mr Turkington said, “It won't be a comfortable experience going forward, where he is going. It is an excellent pre-sentence report which indicates a medium risk of re-offending.
“He accepts the serious charge and the serious amount of drugs. He was in financial dire straits at the time with legal costs to the family court. The reputation will follow this young man.”
The court was also told Leonard had a 'very limited' criminal record but the judge pointed out how he had squandered his stable family upbringing.
Judge Sherrard said, “Mr Leonard, aged 26, you, unlike many before this court, have had the advantage of a stable upbringing. It seems likely good family relationships have been significantly damaged by your behaviour.
"A single man employed as a driver and mechanic. You have a brief criminal record but of no consequence to this sentencing.
“You maintain you became involved in this venture having been propositioned the day before to pay off a drug debt of £1,000 and to gain £1,000. I'm told you express remorse and insight with medium likelihood of re-offending.”
Sentencing the men, Judge Sherrard said, “You must have had some awareness of the size and nature of this venture, yet you chose to participate and continue to participate in it.
“There is no evidence you were front and centre of this venture. The drug trade depends on numerous links in the train and any link missing will break the train, so any link missing is important even functionaries.
“Those who make their premises available and those who courier drugs all have an important role to play in this invidious trade.”
He also stated, “This is an unusual volume of consignment for our jurisdiction and would highly unlikely be entrusted to individuals who would pose a risk to it or were not trusted implicitly by those higher up the scale of command.”
Judge Sherrard noted they had not been before the courts before for anything of this nature and had also expressed remorse.
He suggested they would benefit from an 'enhanced and lengthy' period of rehabilitation and thereby broke the sentence down to include two and a half years on licence.
In conclusion the judge warned McClean and Leonard, “If I can just remind you gentlemen, the court has to some extent mitigated your sentence today... I am mindful of giving you a really good opportunity to rehabilitate.
“But it should be absolutely clear, if you come before me again, the court will deal with you much less sympathetically than it has today.”