A gang of drug dealers who flooded the region with millions of pounds worth of cocaine, amphetamine and cannabis, have been locked up for almost 65 years.

The cross-country network was set up by North East kingpin Darren Towler with people he met while serving an earlier prison sentence for drug supply.

A total of 11 people appeared in court for their role in the conspiracy to bring kilos of drugs from Merseyside into County Durham before they were distributed throughout the region.

Former world champion cage fighter Towler, the head of the North East-based gang, is still on the run after being convicted in his absence of orchestrating the conspiracy alongside his sister, half-brother and girlfriend.

Read next: Man accused of Bishop Auckland murder struggles to contain emotions as he appears in court

Teesside Crown Court heard how Ricky Hemmings was at the top of the gang supplying the Class A and B drugs from his Merseyside home to Towler and his criminal network, which involved burner and encrypted phones, complex logistics, and frequent communications.

Judge Jonathan Carroll said the fact that the purity of the cocaine – between 90 per cent and 95 per cent – proved how high up the gangs were in the drug supply network.

Dealing with Towler’s involvement, the judge said: “It is much closer to the import stage than is seen in many cases. It involved industrial scale quantities of Class A cocaine and Class B amphetamine measured in multiple kilos of drugs.

“Bundles of cash, each in the hundreds of thousands of pounds and collectively well over £1m, travelling from the North East to Liverpool.”

The Northern Echo: North East kingpin Darren Towler, left, and Merseyside main player, John CampbellNorth East kingpin Darren Towler, left, and Merseyside main player, John Campbell (Image: Durham Constabulary)

Detectives were unable to put an exact figure on the amount of drugs and cash that flowed across the country but they traced more than ten trips between the North East and North West over a five-month period in 2017.

Their investigations showed there were multiple kilos of drugs exchanged for hundreds of thousands of pounds – including more than £100,000 wrapped up in two shoe boxes disguised as presents for children.

Emma Dowling, prosecuting, said Towler was found with an encrypted mobile telephone when he was arrested for a second time and he had all the trappings of a drug dealer – expensive watches and a high-performance car – without the legal means to pay for them.

She said there was regular contact across both sides of the Pennines when the shipments were being made and paid for between April and August 2017.

Towler, 41, of Rutherford Street, Newcastle, was found guilty of conspiracy to supply cocaine and amphetamine but admitted the same charge for cannabis. He was jailed for 24 years.

His half-brother, Jonathan Kitson, 28, of Riding Hill, Great Lumley, pleaded guilty on the fourth day of his trial to the conspiracy charges and a separate charge involving cannabis. He was jailed for nine years and 11 months.

Jodie Smith, 42, of Main Street, Consett, the former partner of Towler, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class A drugs. She was jailed for six years and six months.

While his sister, Anita Towler, 43, of Second Street, Consett, pleaded guilty to the same charge. She will be sentenced next month.

The Northern Echo: Drugs seized during the police operationDrugs seized during the police operation (Image: Durham Constabulary)

The other members of the North East network pleading guilty to drug charges were Aaron Merritt, 29, of Hallgarth, Consett who was jailed for 29 months; 40-year-old Craig Field, of Lincoln Place, Consett, pleaded guilty to supplying cocaine and was jailed for five years and seven months; and John Huscroft, 45, of Thornhill Gardens, Burnopfield, pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to supply. He was given a 22-month sentence, suspended for two years.

And two men played a lesser role in the drug supply network with Steven Ruddick, 38, of Pasture Row, Eldon, near Bishop Auckland, pleading guilty to being concerned in the supply of cocaine. He will be sentenced next month.

While his 29-year-old step-brother Daniel Mappin, of Front Street, Tudhoe, pleaded guilty to being concerned in the supply of cocaine and an additional charge of supplying heroin. He was jailed for five years and four months.

On the other side of the Pennines, Ricky Hemmings and John Edward Campbell, both from Kirkby, in Merseyside, admitted the conspiracy charges relating to unknown quantities of cocaine and amphetamines. Hemmings, 40, was jailed for 13 years and six months and 48-year-old Campbell was jailed for six years and eight months.

Read next: