AN organised crime gang managed by a convicted drug dealer from his prison cell have been jailed for more than 92 years following nine-month undercover investigation.

The 20 men and two women were part of a Merseyside-based drugs gang led by Lee Stoba, who was already serving a lengthy prison sentence at HMP Altcourse for drug dealing.

Police said Stoba managed the group like a 'military operation' from his cell, with the 21 gang members working beneath him acting as a network of couriers.

The defendants included four men from Runcorn and one from Widnes.

The gang was responsible for the sourcing of Class A and B drugs, keeping them safe and then selling and distributing them to towns and cities across the UK.

Today, Friday, 19 members of the gang, along with their leader, were sentenced to a total of 92 years in prison thanks to a nine-month undercover investigation by officers from Cheshire Police’s Crime Operations Unit.

Two remaining members of the gang are set to be sentenced on December 15.

The operation was initially launched in May last year when officers began to investigate a Merseyside-based crime gang, who were believed to be responsible for the large-scale supply of Class A and B drugs in Cheshire, Merseyside and Scotland.

On February 28, after collecting evidence for more than nine months, officers carried out a series of dawn raids at addresses across Merseyside.

The warrants led to the arrest of 10 men and one woman on suspicion of drugs offences, while Stoba, 44, was arrested in his prison cell at HMP Alcourse.

Stoba was jailed for 19 years.

Stoba, along with Christopher Campbell, 42, of Liverpool, Gary Jones, 34, of Liverpool, Ian McDonald, 31, of HMP Altcourse, Andrew O’Callaghan, 38, of Liverpool, Sarah Haldon, 22, of St Helens, Jamie Byrne, 36, of Liverpool, Thomas Williams, 31, of Liverpool, Nathan Agatha, 27, of Liverpool, Paul Reid, 34, of Droitwich Spa, Liam Astle, 24, of HMP Swinfen Hall, and James Jefferies, 31, of Liverpool, were all transported to custody where they were questioned and subsequently charged with conspiracy to supply Class A and B drugs.

On March 14, officers conducted a second series of drugs warrants – this time focusing on gang members in Cheshire, targeting homes in Widnes, Runcorn, Warrington, Ellesmere Port and Winsford.

The warrants led to the arrests of a further nine men and one woman on suspicion of drugs offences.

Paul Fazackerley, 30, of Caernarvon Close, Castlefields, Runcorn, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class A drugs and possession of Class B drugs and was jailed for four years.

Kieran O’Brien, 38, of Whatcroft Close, Halton Lodge, Runcorn, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class B drugs and was sentenced to two years three months.

Martin Salmon, 34, of Exmouth Crescent, Murdishaw, Runcorn, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class B drugs and was jailed for two years and three months.

Greg Carter, 27, of Davies Close, Widnes, admitted possession with intent to supply Class B drugs and was jailed for two years six months.

Tamar O’Brien, of Crannage Close, Halton Lodge, Runcorn, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply Class B drugs and was sentenced to 18 months suspended for two years and put on a curfew.

Shawn O’Malley, 29, from Warrington, Stephen Snelson, 32, from Warrington, Philip Pendergast, 43, from Ellesmere Port, Anthony Jones, 31, from Winsford, and Hayley Murphy, 32, of Liverpool, have also been sentenced for offences relating to the supply of Class A and B drugs.

Seventeen members of the gang pleaded guilty to charges for a variety of offences including money laundering, conspiracy to supply Cannabis, Heroin, Cocaine and Ecstasy.

The remaining five members of the gang – Stoba, Campbell, Jones, Williams and O’Callagan – pleaded not guilty, leading to two trials at Liverpool Crown Court.

After hearing all the evidence presented against the group the jury found Stoba and the remaining gang members guilty.

Following sentencing, Detective Inspector Giles Pierce said: “These defendants were all members of a highly-sophisticated organised crime gang who were responsible for the large-scale supply of Class A and B drugs in Cheshire and further afield.

“To run their operation, the group used a series of safe houses across the region, some rented in false names, to store huge quantities of drugs destined for dealers lower down the chain in Cheshire and Scotland.

“Their leader, Stoba, truly believed that he was above the law.

"Despite already being behind bars for drugs offences, he believed that he could still run his criminal operations from within his prison cell.

“However, thanks to the hard work and determination of a dedicated team of officers here at the Cheshire Police’s Crime Operations Unit, Stoba, and the gang he was running, are all now facing the consequences of their actions.”

Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah praised the police and said the operation 'highlights the value of intelligence-led searches'.

He added: “I am determined to tackle the threat of drugs in prisons and this sentence sends a strong message that criminals who involve themselves in this type of behaviour will be caught and will be punished.

“We are continuously developing our security measures and have already equipped all prisons with portable and fixed detectors to tackle illicit use of phones in prisons."

Anyone with any information can contact police on 101.

Alternatively, information can also be passed on anonymously, via Crimestoppers, on 0800 555 111.