Police seized shotgun destined for Sunderland drug dealers - then caught culprits using dummy
Police seized a live shotgun which was destined for city drug dealers to use in Sunderland - and replaced it with a fake for when criminals arrived to collect it.
Andrew Belford had dumped the lethal, double-barrelled weapon when he became "spooked" at the site of marked police vehicles while transporting it in the car he was driving in April 2016.
Newcastle Crown Court heard he left the live-firing gun, hidden, at Warden Law Lane in Sunderland, where it was picked up by police - who replaced it with a dummy weapon and planted covert cameras in the area.
A team of uniformed officers then carried out a highly visible, fake, search in the area, in an effort to convince the crooks that nothing had been found.
When the criminals went back to collect it, they found a fake weapon, which was covered in smart-grease, and their images captured on the covert recording devices.
Four men were arrested and have now been put behind bars as as result of the covert police surveillance operation.
Prosecutor Liam O'Brien told the court Liam Bestford had handed over the gun to Belford and Michael Laing in a "carefully orchestrated operation", which involved using burning phones, multiple cars and careful packaging, at a deserted car park in April 2016.
Mr O'Brien said: "There is sufficient evidence to be sure, beyond any doubt, that the ultimate intention of Belford and Laing was to provide the shotgun to those involved in the distribution of Class A drugs.
"Considerable steps were taken in order to minimise the chances of the defendants' actions being detected."
"This was planned offending, say the Crown, organised crime in the most literal sense of the word."
Mr O'Brien said it was when Belford was transporting the weapon along the A19 in Sunderland and spotted marked police vehicles he started "driving aggressively" through rush-hour traffic to get away and dumped the gun.
The court heard police then found and seized the shotgun, which was fully functional and capable of firing live rounds.
Mr O'Brien added: "After it was recovered, a cunning police operation commenced, in order to obtain sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution.
"A dummy package, covered in smart-grease and containing a fake shotgun was put in place.
"Hidden cameras were erected and covert surveillance continued.
"Ultimately, on May 5 and 6, a high visibility, fake, police search operation was conducted by officers at the roadside, near the entrance of Warden Law Lane."
The court heard Belford was spotted driving past the fake search site on May 6.
Mr O'Brien added: "Telephone records show he put into effect a scheme to retrieve the shotgun."
The court heard Belford contacted Laing, who recruited Dale Forth to help him retrieve the weapon from it's public hiding place and they were caught on police camera during the pick-up, which left them "covered in smart grease".
Belford, 33, of Londonderry Street, Sunderland, was convicted by a jury of possessing a shotgun without a certificate and conspiracy to possess a shotgun without a certificate. He pleaded guilty to a separate offence of producing cannabis, after a farm was found at Blind Lane in Sunderland.
He has been jailed for a total of five-and-a-half years.
Laing, 27, of Westgate Avenue, Sunderland, was convicted by a jury of the shotgun offences and had admitted possessing small quantities of drugs. He has been jailed for three years.
Bestford, 32, of Old Mill Road, Sunderland, was convicted by a jury of the same shotgun offences and has also been jailed for three years.
Forth, 35, of Vicarage Road, Sunderland, who was convicted of only conspiracy to possess a shotgun without a certificate, has been jailed for two-and-a-half years.
All four had denied the firearms offences.
Judge Penny Moreland said the gun was not loaded and had no ammunition with it but added: "There is, in my view, no conceivable lawful purpose that it could could be in your possession.
"I take the view all of you knew it was be use used in crime and by criminals.
"What, in that context, are guns for but to kill, to maim, to terrorise and to intimidate."
Judge Moreland told them: "I am satisfied that ll four of you knew exactly what you were handling when you had contact with that shotgun."
Defence barristers said none of the men are heavily convicted and have committed no similarly serious offending before or since.