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Drug accused trio had UDA links, court told

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Three men have appeared at Ballymena Magistrates Court to face drugs and money laundering charges following a series of raids conducted as part of the National Crime Agency's (NCA) Operation Venetic

Three men have appeared at Ballymena Magistrates Court to face drugs and money laundering charges following a series of raids conducted as part of the National Crime Agency's (NCA) Operation Venetic

Three men have appeared at Ballymena Magistrates Court to face drugs and money laundering charges following a series of raids conducted as part of the National Crime Agency's (NCA) Operation Venetic

Three men have appeared at Ballymena Magistrates Court to face drugs and money laundering charges following a series of raids conducted as part of the National Crime Agency's (NCA) Operation Venetic.

The investigation was launched after analysis of messages shared on Encrochat, the encrypted messaging platform cracked by law enforcement agencies earlier this year.

Searches were initially carried out at several properties in June, before arrests were made this week, with support from PSNI.

Investigators suspect phones seized contain details of drug importation and cash movements linked to a Northern Ireland-based organised crime group.

Appearing by videolink were Samuel Joseph Manning (33) of Lady Wallace Gardens, Lisburn; Mervyn John Armstrong (41) of Millhouse Road, Antrim; and Sean Gerard Cassidy (44) of Tully Road, Crumlin.

All are each charged with conspiring and being concerned in the supply of cocaine and cannabis, as well as money laundering.

Cassidy is further charged with conspiracy to import a prohibited weapon and ammunition.

An NCA officer confirmed the charges could be connected to the defendants, which allegedly occurred between March 23 and June 13.

Bail was opposed by a prosecution lawyer who detailed evidence linking the accused to recovered phone handsets.

In respect of Armstrong, the court heard a search of his business premises in June recovered an encrypted phone, cash, drugs, mixing agent and cash counting machines.

Messages recovered refer to the importation of drugs, including: "£42K coming from Holland."

There is also reference to supplying to South East Antrim UDA and "raising the price".

Armstrong has previous drugs convictions and has been jailed for possessing an assault rifle and intelligence documents stolen from the Army.

When Manning's house was searched, phones, cash and documents were seized.

Messages revealed discussions around adulterating cocaine.

In addition, Manning was stopped while driving earlier this month while making his way to a bookmakers, and £11,895 cash was discovered - £750 on his person and the remainder hidden in a plastic bag under the driver seat.

Police at the scene noted he "wasn't at all bothered, except for the £750 as he couldn't place his bet".

The search of Cassidy's home uncovered a specific encrypted phone containing numerous references to drugs.

He allegedly discusses mixing the drugs to increase profits and refers to obtaining drugs by having a fisherman "grab" them from Portuguese waters, as well as importation from South America inside furniture.

Messages also discuss needing to buy a handgun and being told one is available for €4,000 and another, a Glock, for €4,500.

Cassidy discusses the transfer of cash to Dubai stressing how its origins must be made to look real. He has 70 previous convictions, including for drugs offences.

Lawyers argued bail should be granted, pointing out there will be a legal challenge around the admissibility of evidence and if it has been lawfully obtained.

The judge refused bail to Armstrong but agreed to release Manning and Cassidy on stringent conditions, including a cash surety of £5,000 each, curfew, weekly reporting to police and surrender of passports.

Belfast Telegraph


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