CARLISLE’S most senior judge has highlighted how a Liverpool drugs gang set up a lucrative drug-dealing operation in the city by cynically exploiting addicts.

The five-strong drug dealing team used mass-marketing techniques, and enlisted the help of at least 11 local drug users to create a slick heroin and cocaine dealing operation which ran for five months.

It almost certainly generated profits which detectives believe ran into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Over 174 days last year, the conspirators sent out almost 10,000 “text-bomb” messages to potential customers.

They told more than 100 local drug addicts that cocaine and heroin were available.

Several of the Cumbrians involved were persuaded to hand over their homes, so that drugs could be secretly prepared for sale.

In a series of raids, police found evidence of how the gang bulked out drug deals with substances such as caffeine, paracetamol, and phanecetin - a chemical which is known to cause cancer.

But the Cumbria Police investigation - codenamed Operation Nile - smashed the plot.

At Carlisle Crown Court, Judge Peter Davies handed down jail terms totalling almost 90 years to 15 of the conspirators.

The longest sentence was imposed on the Liverpool drugs criminal who led the conspiracy, 35-year-old Roy Hickman, jailed for 14 years and four months. Long jail terms were also given to some of the Cumbrians involved, including Christopher Cooke, 39, of Stanhope Road, Carlisle, who sold drugs and collected debts.

He was jailed for five years and 219 days.

Describing the conspiracy’s impact, Judge Davies said: “These convictions relate to what is commonly described as a county lines drugs conspiracy. The term is not one I favour. It fails to describe the essence of such a conspiracy.

“I prefer the term community exploitation. For one side, there is cynical profiteering for a few individuals in the sale of dangerous, unlawful drugs at minimal risk. On the other is a community already blighted by economic deprivation and want which is now compounded by the exploitation and misery of drug addiction and crime.”

The profit for the Cumbrians involved was minimal, he said.

“Vulnerable people have been exploited by this conspiracy. Poverty has resulted. There has been devastation, despair, and a huge financial and social cost this county cannot afford.”

After sentencing 15 of the gang’s 16 members, Judge Davies praised the Cumbria Police team who brought them to justice.

He said: “Despite the fact that the conspiracy only finished on November 18, [2018], the police investigation was thorough, it was wide-ranging; and the phone evidence in particular was collated and managed superbly.”

“As a result, it meant a significant drugs conspiracy was foiled. Many of those involved in the drugs conspiracy were arrested and charged; and unlike many similar conspiracies the major figures were apprehended from Merseyside.”

The following defendants were also jailed:

Thomas Wright, 25, of Harefield Road, Liverpool. Hickman’s second in command, he was jailed for 10 years and six months.

Christopher Westwell, 25, of Roundhey, Liverpool. A leading manager of dealing in Cumbria, he was jailed for nine years and nine months.

Dylan Yates, 25, of Boodecroft, Liverpool. Partly because he has previous convictions for heroin trafficking, he was jailed for 12 years and six months.

James Bailey, 20, of Skelmersdale, Lancashire. Dylan Yates’s “apprentice,” his jail term was nine years.

Michael Mandale, 51, of Greystoke, near Penrith. He passed contact details of local drug addicts to the gang. He was jailed for three years nine months.

Daniel Brennan, 32, of Woodside North, Carlisle. He was jailed for four years and six months.

Connor White, 23, of Eldon Drive, Harraby, Carlisle, was jailed for three years.

Joseph Graham, 40, of Borrowdale Gardens, Carlisle, also got three years, as was Peter Bryson, 31, of Castlerigg Drive, Morton

Heather Wills, 37, also of Castlerigg Drive, was sentenced to 28 months, while Storme Abrahams, 32, of Mill Street, Longtown, got two years.

Bradley Hickman, 35, of Ellesmere Way, Morton, Carlisle, also got two years. Leon Kenyon, 48, of Osborne Avenue, was given 20 months.

Sharnee Dawkins, 29, formerly of Crummock Street, Carlisle, will be sentenced at a later date. She was excused from this week’s Carlisle Crown Court hearing because she is due to give birth.

After the case, the senior officer whose role includes overseeing the Cumbrian force’s North Area Drugs Squad, Detective Inspector David Cooper, welcomed the tough sentences.

He said: “County lines drug supply is a somewhat insipid term for activity which is absolutely despicable and very very harmful within our communities.

“It’s exploitative drug supply, forced on communities by outside crime groups and the harm goes way beyond those immediately involved in the drugs. This case also shows that north Cumbria is not a soft touch for Liverpool drug dealers, or drug dealers from anywhere else.”

Keeping communities safe is a top police priority, he said. The case was the biggest ever county lines drugs plot dismantled by Cumbria Police.