A string of criminals have been busted after police hacked their EncroChat devices revealing their underworld messages.

Drug dealers at the top levels of operations have now received hefty sentences after their multi-million pound enterprises were unravelled by the interception of the communication platform.

Our sister title The Liverpool Echo reports how the city’s Crown Court has been inundated with the cases from investigations.

They also report how, while international attention has focused on the high profile investigations linked to EncroChat, further down the chain troublemakers have still been securing their own downfall through more traditional means.

For those unable to afford or obtain EncroChat software, text messages remain crucial to their operations.

This is particularly the case in frontline drug dealing - where 'graft' phone numbers are used to arrange transactions and 'flare' advertising messages are sent to customers.

As a result, while the higher echelons of the underworld have been rumbled through their secret messages, some active on the bottom rungs of the criminal ladder have been jailed because of the easier-to-access, unprotected text messages they have sent to contacts, relatives and even the police.

Did you know you can keep up to date with the latest news by signing up to our daily newsletter?

We send a morning and lunchtime newsletter covering the latest headlines every day.

We also send coronavirus updates at 5pm on weekdays, and a round up of the week's must-read stories on Sunday afternoons.

Signing up is simple, easy and free.

You can pop your email address into the sign up box above, hit Subscribe and we'll do the rest.

Alternatively, you can sign up and check out the rest of our newsletters here.

Sorry Tony”

Panicking drugs courier Joseph Harding was one such figure who was snared after messages were obtained by police.

He was interrupted by police while typing an apologetic text to his boss.

The 55-year-old, who had just taken part in what his associates thought had been a secret meeting, had almost half a kilogram of cocaine in his pocket at the time.

The officers who stopped him seized his mobile phone and found an unsent text message that simply read: "SORRY TONY."

Joseph Harding, 55, of Cawthorne Avenue, Kirkby

It was the last operation performed on his phone and had been drafted for a number linked to Anthony Nash.

Nash, police confirmed, was one of two brothers who ran a drugs empire that caused misery in Kirkby.

Both he and Harding were jailed for their roles in the gang earlier this year after being brought down by Merseyside Police's Operation Bandit.

Police had watched Harding and Nash arrive at an associate's home on the evening of September 19, 2019.

The meeting took place a day after a safehouse linked to the gang was raided in Bewley Drive, leading to £32,980 in cash and cocaine worth up to £29,000 being seized.

Harding left the home at 5.36pm, climbing into his Toyota Avensis. He was stopped by police at 5.41pm.

Stashed in one of his pockets was 492g of cocaine with a purity of 87%. The wholesale deal had a potential street value of up to £49,287.

Harding, of Cawthorne Avenue, Kirkby, admitted conspiracy to supply Class A drugs and was sentenced to six years and four months in jail.

As one police team targeted him a second raided the home the meeting had taken place at, finding a safe bolted to the wall.

It was removed and opened, revealing seven kilograms of cocaine with a potential street value of between £277,305 and £691,487.

Police returned to the property the next day and the search was extended to the loft.

They found an arsenal of weapons including a silver revolver loaded with six cartridges, a black revolver, 20 further cartridges, a semi-automatic sawn-off shotgun and five grenades - requiring a bomb squad to be called to the home.

Anthony Nash, of Bracknall Close in the Southdene area of Kirkby, was found guilty of conspiracy to supply Class A drugs and conspiracy to possess criminal property.

The 36 year old was sentenced to 15 years and six months.

Anthony Nash, 36, of Bracknall Close, Kirkby

Drug dealer bombarded police officer with adverts for 'flake'

Drug dealer Chris Jopson was the author of his own downfall when he repeatedly sent text messages offering cocaine to a police officer’s work phone.

The 29-year-old sent dozens of texts to a PC Uren after unwittingly adding his number to a list of contacts who he would advertise drugs to.

Over a near two-year period, the PC received more than 50 messages offering him Class A drugs.

Christopher Jopson sent messages offering drugs to a police officer

Jopson, of Brooke Close, Southport, was involved in a drugs operation which was based in Lancashire but sold drugs across Southport before being caught in a police sting on the Tarleton Bypass.

Philip Astbury, prosecuting, told Liverpool Crown Court this week that Jopson's messages were sent from five different mobile numbers between March 2019 and May 2021.

Mr Astbury explained that PC Uren, an officer with Merseyside Police, had a mobile phone whose number was regularly given out to members of the public.

He said: “The number found its way into the contact list, referred to as a graft list, which was sent from time to time messages offering cocaine for sale.

“As a consequence, the messages would be received by the officer’s work phone.

“Up to December 2020, the officer received a total of 43 messages offering 'flakes', inferred by an expert as meaning high quality cocaine.”

Between December and March 26, another 18 messages were sent.

An investigation revealed that a SIM card associated with one of the numbers had been topped up in Ormskirk one month before Jopson was arrested.

He had been caught on CCTV entering the shop to carry out the purchase and, 14 minutes later, a message offering drugs was sent to the police officer’s phone.

Jopson was handed a 45-month sentence.

Nan ordered grandson to remove gun from her home

A text message conversation between a nan and her grandson highlighted his own involvement with guns.

Gerard Wignall was released from jail after serving a nine-year sentence for ferrying heroin into seaside resorts in Wales.

Marie Jones offered him a place to live at her home in Whitburn Road, Kirkby, but five days later made a shocking discovery.

Gerard Wignall's arrest after he stashed a gun in his nan's house

Marianne Alton, prosecuting, said Ms Jones text her grandson just before 7am on March 23, 2020, saying: "Gun out now."

Wignall, 32, formerly of Wellfield Road, Walton, replied "Hahaha it’s not real nan x", then added: "Nan?"

Ms Jones text back "Out" and her grandson pleaded: "I left it there to put on my wall nan wanted to ask first sorry."

His nan warned "You can get 5" and Wignall said "For what it's not real Nan it isn't what you think it is" but she insisted: "Out."

Wignall replied: "Ok al be home soon"

Ms Alton said: "The prosecution say that the messages must have been sent by Mr Wignall's grandmother upon discovery of one of the firearms in their home.

"The prosecution say that Mr Wignall's protestation that the gun was "not real" was an entirely disingenuous attempt to deceive his grandmother.

"Marie Jones was not fooled however. The reference to "you can get 5" the prosecution say is a reference to the five-year mandatory minimum term for possession of a section 5 firearm."

Neither this gun - a Howa M1500 6.5 Creedmoor bolt action rifle - nor another weapon handled by Wignall, a Beretta over and under shotgun, were in fact types of prohibited weapons which are subject to the minimum five-year sentence.

But the court heard how Wignall stored both weapons - stolen in burglaries at two firearms stores in Hereford while he was in prison - on behalf of organised crime gangs.

The Howa M1500 6.5 Creedmoor bolt action rifle that Gerard Wignall stored in his nan's house in Kirkby

Wignall originally denied two counts of possessing a firearm when prohibited for life - a ban imposed as a result of him being jailed in March 2016 for conspiring to supply heroin.

But he later pleaded guilty ahead of a trial, on the basis: "I was a temporary custodian.

"The guns were in my possession at the same time and only briefly. I was not involved in the arrangements for the onward transfer of either of the weapons."

The court heard the maximum sentence for possessing a firearm when prohibited is five years in prison.

Ms Alton described Wignall as a "custodian of a rifle and a shotgun for organised criminals" and said "even if he did not know the precise details of their intended use, he was clearly reckless as to whether the guns would be used for a criminal purpose".

Phillip Astbury, defending, noted the rifle had been described as a "sniper rifle".

He said: "Quite an emotive term I would imagine. I make the point neither of these weapons are prohibited within the relevant act."

The lawyer suggested Wignall's culpability was "low", adding: "It's a limited role, for a short period, under the direction of others."

Addressing Wignall and referring to the text messages he exchanged with his nan, Judge Louise Brandon said: "She had evidently found a gun in her home and wanted it out of her house, where you were living at the time."

The judge said it was accepted Wignall was someone storing the guns before they were moved on and wasn't going to use them himself.

The Beretta shotgun handled by Gerard Wignall, 32, of Whitburn Road, Kirkby

She said: "You're somebody whose antecedents demonstrate you have criminal connections and you were willing to hold firearms for others."

Judge Brandon said he was "reckless at least" that the guns would be used by others, although she couldn't say given his basis to what use they would have been put to.

Giving him credit for his guilty pleas, the judge jailed Wignall for 16 months, who replied: "Thank you, thank you."