A TEAM of Cumbrian detectives whose work has put 15 drugs criminals behind bars are to be formally commended.

Their investigation - Codenamed Operation Nile - smashed the biggest "so-called" county lines drugs conspiracy ever seen in North Cumbria.

Over 174 days last year, a five-strong gang of Liverpool based criminals set up a huge cocaine and heroin dealing operation in Carlisle and west Cumbria, recruiting 11 local drug users to build up their deadly trade.

Police believe it was potentially worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Gang members ruthlessly exploited addicts, commandeering their homes as "safe houses" so they could prepare street deals in secret.

When one local addict handed over 16 names and numbers for potential customers, the dealing operation expanded rapidly.

The gang even deployed a mass-marketing technique, advertising heroin and crack cocaine to drug users across north Cumbria in almost 10,000 "text-bomb" adverts.

But Carlisle Crown Court heard how a crack squad of Cumbria detectives smashed the conspiracy.

As he jailed 15 of the 16 people involved - for a combined total of almost 90 years - Judge Peter Davies praised the work of the officers involved.

They were Detective Sergeant Dave Howard, and Detective constables James Aiston, Tim Prangnell, and Richard Massey.

Judge Peter Davies spoke in glowing terms of their investigation.

"This was a very difficult investigation," he said.

Many previous "county lines" drugs cases took as long as two years to reach the crown court, he said.

Judge Davies continued: "In this case, 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 judge also praised the work of the various advocates involved in presenting the case at the crown court. The judge added: "It is my proposal that the police officers who led and conducted this investigation should be commended."

Speaking shortly after the sentencings, the senior police officer whose role includes overseeing the Cumbrian force’s North Area Drugs Squad, Detective Inspector David Cooper, echoed the judge's comments, praising the "diligent" work of his officers.

He said: "Today has seen a number of significant sentences handed to the individuals involved, from those people involved at the head of the conspiracy, Liverpool criminals, right down to street dealers here in Carlisle.

"Operation Nile was an ambitious investigation led by DS David Howard and his team to bring down a Merseyside crime group that had embedded itself in Carlisle.

"The operation was successful in disrupting and dismantling this crime group, which had set about exploiting people in north Cumbria by exporting their criminal enterprise from their larger home city on to the streets of Cumbria.

"DS Howard and his team successfully dismantled that operation, and brought these defendants to justice.

“Operation Nile was an ambitious investigation led by DS Howard and his team to bring down a Merseyside crime group that had embedded itself in Carlisle."

The officer highlighted the "behind-the-scenes" diligent detective work that was involved, adding that the case clearly showed that Cumbria is no soft touch for sophisticated drugs criminals from bigger cities. Indeed, during his summary of the case, prosecutor Tim Evans described how police repeatedly raided the Carlisle homes where the gang set up drug packaging operations.

They were finally forced to abandon Carlisle and set up a safe house in Longtown.

But that too was quickly identified and closed down by police.

Det Insp Cooper added: "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

The longest jail sentence was imposed on the Liverpool 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.

Michael Mandale, 51, of Greystoke, near Penrith, who passed on contact details of local drug addicts to the gang, was jailed for three years nine months, while Storme Abrahams, 32, of Mill Street, Longtown, who let gang members user her home and store drug packaging kit there, was jailed for two years.

Sharnee Dawkins, 29, formerly of Crummock Street, Carlisle, who was convicted of being a part of the conspiracy, will be sentenced at a later date because she was due to give birth.