It was a tragedy that carried chilling echoes of the deaths suffered by thousands of victims of the US drugs epidemic. Jemma Longthorp was just 20 when her body was found in her family’s Oxford home. The student had overdosed on a cocktail of drugs in a desperate attempt to cope with mental illness.
The substances she took included fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used as a painkiller and anaesthetic. Fifty times more powerful than heroin, the drug – which has been linked to the deaths of pop star Prince and the Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman – is so dangerous that even skin contact can be fatal.
In part due to fentanyl’s availability on prescription, fatalities in the US have surged, with figures last year by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealing that more than 36,000 Americans died with fentanyl in their systems between 2011 and 2016.
A couple lie unconscious in their car after taking fentanyl in Dayton, Ohio, in the US. More than 36,000 Americans died with fentanyl in their systems between 2011 and 2016
The majority of those deaths – 18,335 – occurred in 2016 alone.
At the time of Jemma’s death in 2017, there was a real fear that Britain was set to replicate the horrors of America. That year there were 135 deaths attributed to fentanyl in the UK, a leap from the eight recorded in 2008.
One former policeman warned at the time: ‘We face a fairly apocalyptic future if the fentanyl problem is not tackled.’
However, the feared surge in deaths has failed to materialise. In 2018, only 30 fentanyl-related fatalities were recorded, with the figure plummeting to just two last year.
In fact, since last April there has not been a single fatality recorded (subject to a theoretically possible marginal rise after delayed toxicology reports).
That Britain seems to have been spared is thanks to an extraordinarily successful operation led by the National Crime Agency, dubbed ‘Britain’s FBI’.
For the past three years, the organisation has been working with the police to combat the drug smugglers with the support of MI5 – and now, for the first time, the full story of their victory against the fentanyl gangs can be told.
The story begins at the end of 2016, when police forces in the North East raised the alarm over a sudden spike in opioid-related fatalities.
Toxicology tests showed that a shocking number had been caused by fentanyl. Some of the dead had taken the drug in combination with heroin; others on its own.
The police passed on their findings to the NCA, whose anti-drugs squad began to target dealers, many of whom were operating in the unregulated part of the internet known as the ‘dark web’, where drugs can be openly advertised and sold to be delivered by post.
Heading up the team was Lawrence Gibbons, the NCA’s head of drug threat. He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We were all aware of the US situation and other places in far-east Europe with the threat from fentanyl and synthetic opioids.
‘My role is monitoring and looking ahead for future threats impacting on the UK and so we made it a high priority threat.
Student Jemma Longthorp was just 20 when she died at her family home in Oxford, after overdosing on a cocktail of drugs in a desperate attempt to cope with mental illness
‘I allocated a small, specialist team to tackle the dark web and open web, to look at the supply network for fentanyl.’ Gibbons deployed the NCA’s own special weapon: the dark web intelligence collection and exploitation (DICE) team, a small but effective unit of specialised operatives trained by agents from MI5 and GCHQ.
Their task was to navigate the murkiest recesses of the dark web, going undercover online to identify fentanyl dealers who hid their real identities from the authorities.
‘It’s not easy but it is possible to identify people on the dark net through a number of covert means,’ Gibbons said. ‘There’s a lot of work that goes into decryption. But we only have to get lucky once; they have to get lucky every time.’ After identifying targets, DICE officers handed over their files to the NCA frontline agents who would continue the investigation.
One set of dealers operated through an account on the dark web under the name UKBargins and were prolific sellers of fentanyl and carfentanil, which is 100 times more powerful than heroin and is used by vets to tranquillise elephants and rhinos.
Fentanyl – known as ‘Drop Dead’ or ‘Serial Killer’ among users and dealers – is sold in powder form for as little as £20 a gram.
While the gang continued to believe they could act with impunity, the DICE squad had uncovered their real-world identities.
Jake Levene, now 24, a former aerospace engineering student from Wakefield near Leeds, appeared to be the boss behind UKBargins. The NCA began a sophisticated surveillance operation led by now retired senior detective Graham Roberts.
His team knew there was no time to waste. On Friday, April 21, 2017, the NCA’s Cheshire office received the intelligence on Levene and the next day a 12-man surveillance team operating on foot and in cars was set up to monitor his house.
Plainclothes officers tracked Levene to meetings with his accomplices Mandy Lowther, now 22, and Lee Childs, 46.
The trio were seen repeatedly visiting a lock-up warehouse unit three miles from Levene’s home.
The operation’s deputy senior investigating officer (SIO) – who has almost a decade’s experience targeting drug gangs and people smuggling gangs – spoke to The Mail on Sunday, asking to not be named for security reasons. The officer said: ‘DICE and other intelligence sources pointed us in the direction. It’s handed over to us as an investigations team: “This is the package – this is what we think is happening, go and investigate it.”
‘Within 12 hours, because of the threat and the risk posed by fentanyl, they are put under surveillance. Jake Levene took us to the unit and we believe this must be where they are operating out of.
‘If it’s a lower-risk drugs job – we would probably have monitored that location for a period of time. But we couldn’t afford to take that risk because of fentanyl and carfentanil being so dangerous and people dying from them.’
After one weekend’s surveillance, the NCA hit the warehouse unit on Monday, April 24, with armed West Yorkshire police.
From left, Jake Levene, Lee Childs and Mandy Lowther. Levene, now 24, a former aerospace engineering student from Wakefield near Leeds, appeared to be the boss behind UKBargins
Officers wore special protective clothing due to the danger of contact with even the smallest amounts of fentanyl. Because of the hazards, the squad stayed outside the unit, only opening the door to summon Levene and his accomplices, who at first refused to leave. After a prolonged stand-off, the trio relented and were arrested.
Inside, the unit officers found a drugs laboratory, complete with mixing stations, and a makeshift office, which had to be carefully dismantled over weeks under the protocols used in handling the most hazardous materials.
Detectives found that the gang had been mixing fentanyl with paracetamol, caffeine and the potent mind-bending synthetic drug known as ‘spice’.
The investigation revealed how the drugs were packaged up and sent off to buyers in Britain and across the globe by Royal Mail.
CCTV footage showed Childs sending off dozens of drugs packages in post offices near the gang’s warehouse, joining unsuspecting customers collecting their pension or buying stamps in the queue.
Over five months, the gang sold 2,853 packages to 172 UK customers and 271 abroad, having themselves first bought the drugs in bulk from China. According to the deputy SIO, Levene and the others were responsible for ‘a lot of injuries, cardiac arrests, brain injuries – a lot of people who nearly died’ and at least six deaths.
‘A lot of customers had been through education or were employed,’ said the officer. ‘They weren’t stereotypical drug users. Some were in chronic pain.’
Their numbers included 33-year-old Charlton Livick, who suffered from depression. He was found lifeless, sprawled out on his bed by his mother Kathy in the family home in Ferndown, Devon, in 2017.
An inquest later revealed that a ‘lethal dose’ of carfentanil had resulted in his heart failure. He had bought the drugs off the dark web from Levene, Childs and Lowther.
In January last year, all three were found guilty of supplying and exporting Class A drugs at Leeds Crown Court. Levene and Lowther were jailed for 16 and a half years. Childs was sentenced to ten and a half years. Kathy said: ‘All I want is my son back, and I can’t have that, but it’s good to see justice done.’
There have been other scalps for the NCA in the war against the dark web dealers.
In 2018, Kyle Enos, then 25, from Gwent, Wales, was jailed for eight years for selling fentanyl bought from China to 168 customers across the globe, of which 92 were in the UK. His drugs operation is thought to be linked to a string of deaths.
Next week, another dark web seller from Northamptonshire will be sentenced for buying and selling the drug.
Mr Gibbons notes that the arrests of the Leeds gang coincided with a significant fall in fentanyl-related deaths in the UK.
An international operation involving the FBI and European forces taking down dark web marketplaces AlphaBay and Hansa has also been crucial.
‘With the take-down of websites, the Leeds operation and Gwent, you can see the tail off ever since – these are now single figures,’ he added.
‘Last year we had two deaths. We shouldn’t measure success by [the number of] people’s deaths but we are here to protect people and the public from harm.’
For the NCA, impact can be found in the changes to criminals’ behaviour, with larger dark web marketplaces now apparently policing their own websites to prevent sales of fentanyl or its sister drugs.
Mr Gibbons said: ‘They’ve done that because they don’t want law enforcement making them a high priority and taking their site down. That’s one massive success.’