One of the biggest-ever international ecstasy smuggling operations was smashed when detectives identified a gangster through a photograph of his French Bulldog.
Danny Brown, 55, was a member of an organised crime group attempting to ship £45 million worth of the drug MDMA to Australia, hidden in the arm of a 40-tonne digger.
The gang used codenames to communicate, discussing the deal on the encrypted EncroChat network.
But when detectives managed to hack into the platform last year they were able to identify Brown through a photograph of his pet dog that he had sent to one of the other gangsters.
Zooming in on the image of Bob, the French Bulldog, investigators from the National Crime Agency (NCA) were able to spot Brown’s partner’s phone number on a collar tag.
Using this and other evidence they were able to build a case against the conspirators and on Tuesday six men, including Brown, were jailed for a total of 140 years.
The plot involved sending a 40-tonne Doosan digger to Australia on the pretence of selling it via an online auction.
But hidden in its arm in a lead-lined cavity was almost half a tonne of ecstasy tablets intended for distribution throughout Australia.
The gang used EncroChat - a network favoured by criminals - to discuss arrangements, thinking their encrypted messages were completely safe.
But in April 2020 French law enforcement specialists managed to compromise EncroChat without anyone realising.
For months police around Europe were able to secretly harvest evidence against organised crime groups - including against an estimated 10,000 British users.
Among them was the ecstasy gang who went to extraordinary lengths to transport the drugs to Australia, where the street value of MDMA is much higher than in the UK.
The excavator was initially moved from Leeds to an industrial unit in Grays, Essex where one of the gang members used a powerful welding machine to cut open the arm and hide the drugs in a lead-lined compartment.
It was then shipped to Australia, leaving Southampton in January 2020 and arriving in Brisbane three months later.
Unbeknown to the gang, however, the Australian authorities discovered the drugs and after removing them, allowed the digger to continue to its intended destination, an auction house in Sydney.
Gang planned to rig auction in Australia
To make it look like a legitimate business deal, the gang had planned to rig the online auction and buy it themselves.
But their plans were almost undone when other innocent buyers began to take an interest and started to outbid them.
In one message intercepted by police, gang member Leon Reilly, 50, messaged Brown saying: “There are six people watching it.”
Brown replied: “F------ hell, that’s not good is it.”
When they finally took possession of the digger they then spent two days trying to find the drugs before realising something was wrong.
EncroChat messages showed how the gang members launched their own investigation and held meetings in a bid to find out who had stolen the drugs.
But using information gleaned from the encrypted messages, investigators from the NCA were able to identify the gang members and arrest them.
Brown, who used the codename “throwthedice”, was identified through the details on his dog’s collar and also an accidental selfie he sent in which his reflection could be seen in his television.
Stefan Baldauf, 62, another of the plotters, accidentally sent a picture of a brass door sign with his face reflected in it.
The pair were convicted in June along with co-conspirators Tony Borg, 45, Peter Murray, 59, Philip Lawson, 61, and Leon Reilly, 50, of drugs trafficking.
Brown was jailed for 26 years, Baldauf got 28 years, Lawson for 23 years, Borg for 15 years, Murray received 24 years and Reilly got 24 years.
Chris Hill, NCA operations manager, said: “These men thought they were safe on EncroChat but my officers did a superb and painstaking job of building the evidence against them through a mixture of traditional and modern detective skills.
“Brown and Baldauf’s accidental selfies and the photo of Bob the dog were the cherry on the cake in proving who was operating those handles.
“But the OCG went to enormous lengths, even rigging an auction, in a bid to transfer the drugs to Australian conspirators.
“The NCA works with partners at home and abroad to protect the public from the dangers of Class A drugs which wreak so much misery on communities in the UK.”
Colette Moore of the CPS said: “This case involved a colossal quantity of MDMA, with an estimated street value of £44 million, which posed a huge risk to the health and well-being of the Australian public. Organised criminals manufacture ecstasy and other synthetic drugs in dangerous illicit factories, so each individual tablet potentially poses a risk to the life of those using it.
“Excellent work from the Australian authorities identified the drug concealment in the mechanical arm of an excavator arm and prevented its onward distribution. Collaborative international working with our Australian partners has resulted in the successful prosecution of the men who had exported these drugs to the Antipodes.”