Full story behind Oxfordshire drug kingpin who boasted of 'dodging a bullet' | Oxford Mail

2022-07-22 20:17:22 By : Mr. Jayden Ysun

Kingpin Richard Gray was awash with confidence.

“We dodged a big f***ing bullet there,” he told his brother, Patrick.

It was May 17, 2021. Ten days earlier, he’d taken delivery of 12kgs of cocaine from a new supplier.

The drugs – potentially worth half a million pounds to over a million depending on whether they were sold wholesale, broken down or sold on the street - had been stashed in a gas canister and welded shut, requiring Gray and his brother to take an angle grinder to it.

All around him, big players were being arrested by organised crime squads. The conversations they’d thought were heavily encrypted, held on special ‘EncroChat’ phones, had been hacked by French authorities – leading to a series of swoops across Europe.

Richard Gray, known as ‘CheetahSoda’ on the Encro network, seemed to have got away unscathed.

By the end of the month, detectives from Thames Valley Police’s serious organised crime unit would have Gray, his brother and a number of stooges in custody. More than 2.5kgs of cocaine and over £100,000 of the gang’s cash would be in police stores.

Patrick and Richard Gray's 2015 mugshots Picture: TVP

The Gray brothers were not new to drugs. Patrick, who had two earlier convictions for supply, and Richard were jailed for almost nine years in 2015 for dealing heroin and cocaine after police found their drugs stash in woodland near Faringdon.

Their brother, Woodstock-based Martin, was head of an international drug smuggling ring that brought kilos of heroin and cocaine into the UK from Holland. He was handed an 18 year sentence in 2015 after an investigation that saw cops bug Martin’s Ford Transit.

Jailed in 2015, Richard would meet one of his future customers, Mohamed Ali, while behind bars.

By May 2020, Richard Gray’s drugs operation was in full swing. His brother, Patrick, was still languishing in prison – having been returned to custody at the start of the year for failing to pay a proceeds of crime court order.

Richard used an EncroChat phone to speak to his suppliers. The heavily-encrypted telephone network was beloved by criminals for its supposed superior security. Encro phone handsets cost between £1,200 and £1,500 and messages were regularly deleted.

Known by his Encro username, ‘CheetahSoda’, Gray set up deals with Preston-based ‘Famousoneisback’ and Bury dealer ‘Greymoon’ – the latter organising his business deals from behind bars.

The EncroChat phones were used by Gray and ‘Famousoneisback’ to coordinate drug pick-ups.

On April 24, 2020, he swapped messages with the Preston supplier arranging for courier Jamie Shepherd-Smith to pick up two kilos of cocaine the following day.

“What’s the earliest my driver can come tomorrow morning?” Gray asked.

‘Famousoneisback’, whose identity is still not known, replied: “Soon as, bro. I’m an early bird.”

The supplier was told that Gray’s driver didn’t have a ‘stash’ - slang for a vehicle specially converted with a compartment to stash drugs. Instead, he was using a ‘fresh’ car not known to police.

A postcode was given for the meet; the Lostock Hall suburb of Preston.

Shepherd-Smith set off just after 8am the next day, April 25. Gray messaged ‘Famousoneisback’ at 8.14am telling him to expect the courier at 11.30am.

Shepherd-Smith, driving a rented 69-plate grey Audi A3, set off down the A40, passed Wolverhampton at around 9.40am, Stoke-on-Trent at 10.17am and his phone was hitting masts near the meet site in Preston at around 11.20am.

As an added layer of security, ‘Famousoneisback’ asked Gray to get his courier to say the ‘password’.

“‘Famous’,” the supplier asked by Encro message. “Tell him to say ‘Famous’.”

The deal complete, Shepherd-Smith headed back to his home in Brambling Cross, Abingdon, reaching it after 2pm.

At 2.14pm, Gray confirmed to the Preston supplier: “He’s back, bro.” He received the reply: “Nice one.”

The gang had a base at Lower Whitley Farm, near Farmoor Reservoir Picture: OM

Police forces first became aware of the EncroChat network in 2016. Sometimes called the criminal’s WhatsApp, it advertised its service as being ‘the electronic equivalent of a conversation between two people in an empty room’.

By February 2020, French police had cooked up a plan to crack the network’s servers in Roublaix, on the France-Belgium border.

They arranged a software update for the phones that would collect any message sent by or to an Encro phone from the start of April.

By mid-June, bosses at the communications network realised that they had been hacked. On June 13, a message was sent to all users advising them to ‘power off’ and get rid of their phones.

By then, it was too late.

Thames Valley Police’s organised crime squad had been handed a dossier of messages by the National Crime Agency.

Dogged detective work and comparison with his other phone data linked the ‘CheetahSoda’ Encro handle to Richard Gray.

The police officers bided their time. Rather than swoop and arrest Gray, as had happened to other dealers, they placed the suspected kingpin under close surveillance.

He was followed to suspected drug handovers and cameras put up outside a complex of buildings at Lower Whitley Farm, just south of Farmoor reservoir and where Patrick Gray was working for his father-in-law.

Just as when detectives were investigating brother Martin Gray’s drug smuggling operation, police installed an audio bug in Richard’s white Fiat Doblo van. The first recording was made on May 5, 2021.

Richard Gray lived on a new-build estate on the outskirts of Witney.

He sent his couriers – first Jamie Shepherd-Smith then, later, a friend and workmate of Patrick’s William White – north in hire cars to collect up to 2kgs of cocaine at a time from suppliers in Preston and Bury.

The drugs were brought back to the home of Richard Gray’s then girlfriend in Songthrush Road, Banbury, prosecutors said.

Jurors at Oxford Crown Court were told it was suspected the drugs were being ‘cut down’ – or diluted with substances like caffeine – and pressed into fresh blocks of ‘cocaine’ at Lower Whitley Farm.

A hydraulic press was found in one of the sheds, although no traces of drugs were found on the machine and police did not find the kind of moulds often used by suppliers to press diluted cocaine into blocks.

Then there were the customers. Gray had a network of them; Lewis Court in Oxford, Mohamed Ali in Milton Keynes and Mark Hickford who he met at the Beaconsfield services in Buckinghamshire.

On one occasion, April 29, 2021, Patrick went to meet Hickford as his brother was up north in Bury. Patrick – who prosecutors suggested was Richard’s ‘right hand man’ after September 2020 – claimed he’d been asked to give the customer some steroids, although jurors rejected that explanation.

Richard Gray set up a courier business during lockdown, registering it with Companies House on March 19, 2021 Picture: COMPANIES HOUSE/WEB

To explain being out-and-about during the lockdown, Gray set himself up as a courier. He registered the business name Express Nationwide Couriers Ltd at Companies House, bought a white Fiat Doblo van and was frequently seen in the police surveillance footage wearing a high-viz tabard.

The van was bought from a reputable dealer, with Richard Gray moving money between his and his brother’s accounts when buying it supposedly in an effort to hide the source of the cash, prosecutors told Judge Michael Gledhill QC last month.

Later, the Fiat was fitted with a ‘hide’. A push button released a panel in the back of the van behind which drugs or cash could be stored.

The 'hide' in Richard Gray's Fiat Doblo Picture: TVP/CPS

Close up of hide in Richard Gray's Fiat Doblo Picture: TVP/CPS

The business stepped up a notch on May 7 last year, when Richard Gray took delivery of 12kgs of cocaine. Rather than having to go north to collect it, the drugs were brought to him.

At 10.44am that morning, Gray was recorded speaking to a man on the telephone, asking if he wanted ‘1,200’ or a kilo and confirming he’d be there in about an hour and a half. Based on where he went next, prosecutors said he was talking to Mohamed Ali – although he denied it.

At 11.23am, Gray was spotted getting out his white Fiat Doblo and going into his girlfriend’s flat in Banbury. He was inside for five minutes before returning to the van.

Data from the Waze navigation app later obtained from Gray’s phone showed he’d entered the details for Ali’s home in Milton Keynes.

At 12.20pm, an hour and 36 minutes after his phone call, undercover officers saw Gray pull up outside Ali’s house in Chervil, Milton Keynes. He leaned into the vehicle then walked towards Ali’s home.

Four minutes later he was back at his van carrying a white plastic bag. A surveillance officer heard a mechanical noise before Gray briefly got out of his vehicle. Mr Roques suggested to the jury that this was him placing cash payment for the drugs he’d just supplied into his Fiat’s push button-operated hide.

Put in the witness box last month, Ali claimed that he’d been running a food takeaway business from his home. Gray came to pick up food, he said. Two large cooking pots were found in a shed by police searching Ali’s home in May.

Pots found in Mohamed Ali's shed in May 2021 Picture: TVP/CPS

On the way back to Banbury, Gray was recorded on the police audio probe saying he had ‘150 or 155’. The numbers were said by prosecutors to be a reference to sums of £150,000 or £155,000 to buy his next consignment of cocaine. He also spoke to his brother, Patrick, saying he would need his help in about an hour

He got back to his girlfriend’s home in Banbury.

At 1.45pm, officers saw him leave the flat with a large holdall.

A minute later, at 1.46pm, a silver-coloured Mercedes pulled up outside the flats driven by an ‘Asian male’.

The Mercedes driver opened the boot and struggled to carry a large gas canister over to Richard Gray. In return, Gray was said to have passed over the holdall - supposedly containing cash.

Within eight minutes he was speaking to a customer, explaining he was unwilling to break up the drugs he’d just received and instead sell them as whole kilo blocks.

Gray then drove back to Lower Whitley Farm. Patrick, who was already at the farm, denied helping his brother crack into the canister – although jurors heard audio recordings captured from the van where Richard repeatedly asked ‘Pat’ to come over.

Richard and Patrick Gray at Lower Whitley Farm, near Farmoor Reservoir, from police surveillance footage Picture: TVP/CPS

Later, Gray spoke to a customer about the quality of the drugs - said to be ‘10 out of 10’ - and his encounter with the courier earlier that day.

“What’s going on here,” he reported himself saying to the deliveryman after seeing the canister for the first time. “He goes ‘well, you’ve got to release the gas first, otherwise you’re going to blow the whole thing up’.”

Gray praised his new suppliers. “They’re giving us prices cheaper than anyone else, bruv, and they’re f***ing big [overweight blocks].”

By 5.30pm Gray claimed he’d already sold 8kg out of the 12kg allegedly retrieved from the gas canister.

Drug dealers work in cash. And Richard Gray needed a lot of it.

On May 19, prosecutors said Gray handed over £155,000 to the gang supplying him with the gas canister a week-and-a-half earlier.

He must have told the suppliers that he’d be wearing a high-visibility jacket to make it easier to identify him, jurors were told last month.

Unfortunately, the location chosen for the handover was flush with builder types - leaving the ‘cashier’ confused.

He was taped chatting to his brother later that day about the hapless handover.

“Pat, Pat, Pat,” Gray said.

“You know when I was on the phone to you I was…thinking when’s this, when’s the cashier coming.

“He come [sic], he was stood across the road. He looked at me, yeah. He looked at me, I looked at him. He started walking away.

“I started looking back, I said: ‘You looking back at me?’ I’m thinking, what’s this cashier doing? Some person got in a van, just like a builder. I go, ‘come here’, and the guy comes.”

When police raided Richard Gray’s flat in Barley Court, Witney, on May 26, 2021 they found £65,628 in cash – as well as almost a kilogramme of cutting agents benzocaine and phenacetin.

Earlier, in March 2021, Essex Police pulled over a BMW being driven by courier Henry Soile. Inside the vehicle was around £200,000 in cash. Earlier that day, surveillance officers filmed Richard Gray hand Soile a laden plastic bag in a meeting at Burford garden centre that lasted just seconds.

Meeting between Henry Soile (in black hooded top) and Richard Gray in Burford garden centre car park Picture: TVP/CPS

Gray had his eyes set firmly on the future. In what became known during his brother’s trial as the ‘millionaires conversation’, he was taped setting out his long term plan.

They would funnel the money they made from drugs into houses, building up a property portfolio from ’10 – 20 houses’ held in others’ names so the police couldn’t touch them.

“I’m telling you now. We can have four 10 bar each [£4m each], f***ing easily,” he said.

It would ‘get to the point where we become untouchable,’ he said. “There’s money getting backed up in accounts. People can’t touch it because there’s nothing in our name and at the end, [the] very end, we just pay things off and we say b******s to you.”

Patrick Gray, who denied being involved in the conspiracy, said his brother was referring to his ‘crew’ when he said ‘we’. He claimed that although he knew his brother was supplying cocaine he had no part in it. He’d sent him a picture of blocks of cocaine marked with the word ‘KEI’ because he thought Richard would find it interesting.

Patrick Gray says he sent this picture of cocaine to his brother because he thought he would be interested in it Picture: TVP/CPS

Closing the Crown’s case at his trial, prosecutor Michael Roques said that the evidence against Patrick Gray amounted to ‘some very, very bad luck’ if he were not involved with his brother, Richard, in a conspiracy to supply cocaine.

“So much bad luck, the prosecution say, you can safely rule this out as giving rise to any sort of sensible doubt,” Mr Roques told jurors in his closing speech.

“He’s either the unluckiest man in the world or he’s a drug dealer - and the evidence demonstrates undoubtedly, we would say, he’s a drug dealer.”

Patrick Gray, 44, of Radford Close, Oxford, and Mohamed Ali, 50, of Beanhill, Milton Keynes, were found guilty of conspiracy to supply the class A drug between September 1, 2020, and May 26, 2021.

Gang leader Richard Gray, 32, of Barley Court, Curbridge, couriers William White, 35, of no fixed address, and Jamie Shepherd-Smith, 33, of Bramling Cross, Abingdon, and customer Lewis Court, 36, of Scott Close, Oxford, had already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply cocaine.

All six will be sentenced on March 25.

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