Members of a multi-million pound drug network have been locked up for more than 60 years after they flooded the region with cocaine and amphetamine.

Here we look at the role each individual person played in he conspiracy connecting the North East to the North West.

Detectives were unable to put an exact figure on the amount of drugs shipped across the Pennines but they traced multiple deliveries of drugs and cash between the two organised criminal networks.

Sentencing the gang, Judge Jonathan Carroll said: "Overall, the level of offending is highly sophisticated, involving multiple burner phones, secure encrypted phones, complex logistics, frequent and detailed communications between the parties both when drug delivery runs and return cash delivery runs were being made."


Drug Kingpins


Darren Towler

The head of the North East drugs gang is a former champion cage fighter who lifted an Ultimate Challenge Mixed Martial Arts title in 2011. However, it is his drug dealing activities that have been making the headlines since.

The 41-year-old was locked up for more than three years in 2016 for drug dealing and now he has been jailed for 24 years in his absence.

He was the head of a family-run drug supply network which shipped cocaine, amphetamine and cannabis from the North West into the North East.

Towler, of Rutherford Street, Newcastle, used his sister, brother and partner to help him distribute hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of drugs throughout County Durham.

The Northern Echo: Darren TowlerDarren Towler (Image: Durham Constabulary)

He was found guilty of drug conspiracy in his absence after he failed to attend his trial and remains on the run from police.

Judge Jonathan Carroll described him as the leading North East player in the ‘buying and selling of cocaine on a commercial scale’.

Towler maintained he was not the head of the overall organisation and phone evidence establishes a Spanish link which has never been identified.


Ricky Hemmings

He was the head of the North West operation that sold dozens of kilos of Class A and B drugs to the gang headed-up by Towler.

Teesside Crown Court heard how the 40-year-old, who has a propensity for violence, was not high up in the Merseyside chain of drug suppliers.

However, the judge did not accept that argument due the amount of drugs and cash involved in the deals between the dealing networks.

His barrister, Anthony Barraclough said his only took part in the initial deals before handing over control to one of his recruits.

Hemmings, of Kirby in Merseyside, was jailed for 13 years and six months.

Judge Jonathan Carroll described Hemmings as ‘a very well trusted member of the organisation, directly responsible for many kilos of drugs and hundreds of thousands/ probably up to around £1 million in cash’.

Read more: Members of a multi-million pound drugs gang who flooded region with cocaine locked up for 60 years


A family affair


Jonathan Kitson

Kitson is the younger half-brother of Towler and acted as his trusted second in command throughout the drug conspiracy.

The 28-year-old, of Riding Hill, Great Lumley, pleaded guilty to the drug conspiracy charges on the fourth day of his trial and also admitted possession of cannabis with intent to supply after the drugs were discovered stashed in a safe at his sister’s home.

The Northern Echo: Jonathan KitsonJonathan Kitson (Image: Durham Constabulary)

James Lloyd, his barrister, said his client understood what he was getting involved in and accepts that he chose to remain involved in drug dealing.

He was jailed for nine years and 11 months and Judge Carroll described him as a leading player after his car was stopped in Barnard Castle with £108,000 in cash disguised as a birthday gift to a child.


John Campbell

The 48-year-old from Merseyside played a vital role in shipping the drugs across the Pennines and was recruited by Hemmings to be his right-hand man throughout the conspiracy.

When Hemmings stepped aside it was Campbell who took over control of communications between the two gangs.

Brendan Carville, his barrister, said his client had pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charges five years ago and has been waiting to learn his fate since.

The Northern Echo: John CampbellJohn Campbell (Image: Durham Constabulary)

Judge Carroll described him as a ‘highly placed and well trusted key participant in the Liverpool OCG’ – organised crime gang.

He was jailed for six years and eight months.


Jodie Smith

She played a pivotal role in the North East gang while she was the long-term partner of Darren Towler at the time of the offences.

The 42-year-old gift wrapped two shoe boxes containing more than £100,000 in cash to pretend they were birthday presents being delivered to Merseyside.

Police intercepted the delivery in Barnard Castle and seized the money.

The court heard that she stepped up to be in charge whenever Towler was away from the region.

The Northern Echo: Jodie SmithJodie Smith (Image: Durham Constabulary)

Judge Carroll locked her up for six years and six months, he said: “Money seized by police from Kitson had been stored at Jodie Smith’s home and disguised by her as a child’s birthday present with Jodie Smith’s DNA on the wrappings and a card written by her to a fictitious recipient of the gift-wrapped cash.”

Smith, of Main Street, Consett, had told the court she was under the influence of her former partner during the conspiracy.


Anita Towler

The sister of Darren Towler and Jonathan Kitson allowed the gang to use her home as a drugs warehouse before they were cut up and sold to dealers across the region.

The 43-year-old will be sentenced at a later date.


Key players


Aaron Merritt

The 29-year-old was only initially involved in the amphetamine drug line but following Kitson’s arrest he stepped up to the role of a money courier to take bundles of cash to the North West.

He was described as playing a significant role within the criminal gang but was still operating at a lower level than the members of the Towler family.

The Northern Echo: Aaron MerrittAaron Merritt (Image: Durham Constabulary)

Judge Carroll said Merritt had ‘some awareness of the scale of the operation, trusted role with significant sums of money and involved throughout the relevant period’.

Merritt, of Hallgarth, Consett, was jailed for two years and five months for his role in the gang.


Craig Field

He was only involved in the cocaine side of the North East gang’s drug supply network and used at least 14 unregistered mobile phones over the five-month of the conspiracy.

The 40-year-old was a local supplier of class A drugs who was in regular contact with Darren Towler throughout the period of the conspiracy.

The Northern Echo: Craig FieldCraig Field (Image: Durham Constabulary)

Judge Carroll said Field ‘effectively accepts his part in the onward supply of some of the drugs brought to the North East’.

Field, of Lincoln Place, Consett, was jailed for five years and seven months.


John Huscroft

He was a close friend and driver for Field who helped sell on the drugs to lower-level dealers in the region.

The 45-year-old was described as vulnerable and was assessed as a low-risk of reoffending.

Huscroft, of Thornhill Gardens, Burnopfield, was sentenced to 22-months in prison, suspended for two years.

Judge Carroll said the defendant’s ‘psychiatric and psychological position’ renders him a ‘Vulnerable Adult’.


Steven Ruddick

He was one of Craig Field’s customers and was only involved in the conspiracy for a total of two days.

The 28-year-old, of Pasture Row, Eldon, bought ¼ kilogramme of cocaine valued at £7-10,000 in bulk and worth £20-30,000 when sold in high purity street deals.

Ruddick will be sentenced next month for his role in the conspiracy.


Daniel Mappin

Mappin, the stepbrother of Ruddick, was also only involved over a two-day period, however, while on court bail awaiting sentence for his involvement in the cocaine conspiracy, he was further arrested for possessing heroin with intent to supply.

The Northern Echo: Daniel MappinDaniel Mappin (Image: Durham Constabulary)

A total of 16 separate packages were recovered from his car in Wallsend in July 2020, which had a total weight of 73.54g with a street value of about £3,000.

The 29-year-old, of Front Street, Tudhoe, was jailed for five years and four months.