Cops unable to prove who owned phone hacked by spooks
Major criminal prosecutions involving a secret phone network could collapse over an inability by police to prove who owned the handsets involved.
Operation Venetic, the largest ever UK-wide investigation into drugs and gun gangs, has led to 41 arrests and 36 people being charged.
But several of the prosecutions appear to be on increasingly shaky ground, with detectives unable to comprehensively prove who owned the phones.
Lawyers for the defendants, many of whom have been described in court as major drug dealers, have been buoyed by a recent court ruling in England that cleared Miles Headley.
The 26-year-old was charged with using an Encrochat device to oversee the supply of cocaine in London.
Crucially, he was not found in possession of the phone, meaning the prosecution was based on remotely obtained messaging, as are several similar cases currently before the courts in Northern Ireland.
The case against Headley collapsed when a judge ruled that, although it was clear the user of the Encrochat device was involved in drug dealing, it was impossible to prove that it was the defendant.
Legal sources who spoke to Sunday Life said the failed court action had implications for several similar cases currently running in Northern Ireland.
“It could be a game-changer for the defendants involved,” added the insider.
The Encrochat phone network was used by senior criminals throughout Europe to conduct drugs and arms deals, as well as plan murders.
It is believed to have been breached by Israeli security services on March 25 last year. However, it took another two-and-a-half months before the Netherlands-based company realised that its servers had been compromised.
Its owners sent a warning text to phone users at the beginning of June last year telling them to destroy their devices, but by then it was too late as police forces across the continent had made hundreds of arrests and seized millions of pounds of drugs.
The Encrochat phones cost up to £2,000 and operated on wi-fi networks, with users only able to send and receive text and picture messages.
The probe into the use of the handsets, codenamed Operation Venetic, resulted in a £12m lorry load of cannabis — the largest find ever recorded in Northern Ireland — being intercepted at Templepatrick in June 2020.
In a major cross-border operation the same week, the PSNI and Garda busted an illegal cigarette plant worth £3m.
Among those charged with using Encrochat to conduct international drug deals is former Tyrone GAA star and All-Ireland winner Peter Loughran.
The 46-year-old is accused of importing millions of pounds of cocaine and cannabis into Northern Ireland and laundering huge amounts of criminal money.
Newry businessman Rory Trainor (44) is another facing charges of using Encrochat to supply cocaine and cannabis and launder cash.
Last December, haulage boss Thomas Maher became the first person jailed in the UK for using the secret phone network to conduct drug deals.
The Lancashire-based 40-year-old, who has strong connections to the Republic, was caged for 20 years despite entering early guilty pleas.
Outlining the scale of the Operation Venetic investigation, the National Crime Agency’s Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Freeburn said: “This has been the largest and most significant law enforcement operation ever mounted in the United Kingdom in the fight against organised crime groups.
“The organised crime groups thought that by using encrypted technology they could fly below the radar of law enforcement.
“This operation should send a message that the combined strength of the PSNI, working in partnership with our law enforcement partners, means that no-one is beyond the reach of the law.”