MEMBERS of a drugs gang at the centre of a £750,000 cocaine plot have been jailed for almost 35 years.
Former Newcastle United and Sunderland star Michael Chopra found himself embroiled in the case after claiming a £50,000 bundle found in the footwell of a Jaguar was money being used to pay off his gambling debts – not drugs cash.
But the money was in fact linked to a “cocaine factory” which had been set up in the Washington flat belonging to Joseph Lewins.
Lewins’s flat, in Malvern Road, was used to process, package and distribute high-grade cocaine, and was kitted out with the necessary equipment to do so.
Prosecutors claimed the £50,000 cash was part-payment for a 68 per cent pure, two-kilogram batch seized at the flat by police, who had the gang under secret surveillance in the weeks before their arrest in 2010.
During the trial, the gang said the allegations against them were “ridiculous” and tried to shift the blame onto the late Stuart Mottram, a man known in Sunderland as “Benny the Brick”. But Judge John Evans yesterday dismissed the suggestion Mr Mottram was to blame as an “absurd defence”.
Chopra gave evidence for the defence, claiming the £50,000 found in a black bin-bag in the luxury car being driven by Ronald Moon was being used to pay off loan sharks who were after him to settle a gambling debt.
The footballer told the court his family came under threat as he struggled to pay back cash he had blown through his £2m gambling addiction which had started “taking over his life”.
Joseph Lewins, 55, of Malvern Road, Lambton, Daniel Chisholm, 51, then of Franklin Street, Millfield, Sunderland, and John Somerville, 53, of Sheringham Avenue, Kenton, Newcastle, all denied conspiracy to supply Class A drugs throughout.
At the end of a trial lasting almost a month, Lewins, Chisholm and Somerville were all found guilty.
Moon, 48, of Severn Road, Kirkby, Liverpool, pleaded guilty at an early stage to possessing criminal property in relation to the cash.
Judge Evans said Somerville and Chisholm, who both have previous convictions for drug dealing, were “central and key players” in the conspiracy and jailed them for 12 years each.
The judge told them: “You were close to the original source, although neither of you were absolutely the top of the tree.”
Judge Evans sentenced Lewins to nine years behind bars, and told him: “You described yourself at some point as a ‘mug’ and so you are, but I’m afraid that cannot save you from a significant sentence.”
The judge said Lewins may have been targeted deliberately by the gang because of his lack of previous involvement with drugs.
Moon, who claimed he knew the money he was transporting was for illegal purposes but did not know any exact details, was sentenced to 15 months behind bars.
The judge said: “Those who choose to allow themselves to be used in that way take all the risk and that, I am afraid, is a risk of going into custody.”
Prosecutor Jolyon Perk told jurors that the cash was seized in a Jaguar being driven by Moon, who had just left Somerville’s home and was part-payment for a drugs deal.
Chopra told jurors he had given the money to Somerville, who was helping him sort out his debts with loan sharks, so it could be passed on to creditors in Liverpool.