Cheshire mental health worker was running massive drug empire and ordering shootings
A respected Cheshire mental health worker was running a massive drug empire and ordering shootings while going about his daily job. Alan and John Tobin supplied hundreds of kilos of narcotics to gangs across the UK but their empire was ripped apart after police intercepted a van ferrying £20m of cocaine up the M6.
Cocaine boss and former mental health worker Alan plotted to have rivals shot and slashed. He and his debt-ridden brother become embroiled in a vicious underworld war.
Alan helped hatch a brutal plot to have a father and son shot on their doorsteps – by gunmen disguised as pizza delivery drivers. He also conspired with an alleged gangland boss to get another enemy “carved up” in prison, the ECHO reports.
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Losing the 90 per cent pure consignment led to John being shot over debts to a mysterious accountant. Now, the ECHO can reveal how EncroChat messages showed his older brother Alan was also left feeling the pressure.
For the first time, the ECHO can publish secret conversations that expose how Alan Tobin went from dreaming of making millions to finding himself in a conflict involving some of the North West’s biggest gangland figures.
CapeRocket and SlightDrake’s drug empire
Alan and John Tobin led a “sophisticated, highly profitable and well-organised business” on a national scale. But the duo didn’t run a legitimate firm – they supplied vast amounts of cocaine, heroin, ketamine and cannabis to gangs in England, Wales and Scotland.
Older brother Alan, 52, had risen from humble beginnings as a forklift truck driver, Liverpool Fruit Market worker and Royal Mail sorting office employee to become a respected mental health nurse, based at Rathbone mental health hospital’s low secure unit.
Living in affluent estate Regency Park in Widnes, the dad-of-five married beautician Helen Hartley, 35, aka Ellie Tobin, at Lake Garda in Italy, followed by a two-week £10,000 honeymoon.
However, the veneer of respectability provided by his public service hid his second life as EncroChat drug dealer “CapeRocket”, working in tandem with his little brother, John, 41, aka “SlightDrake”.
For more than four years, between 2016 and 2020, the Tobins enlisted couriers utilising specially adapted vehicles with secret “hide” compartments to ferry their drugs around the UK.
Among their infamous customers were two Warrington firms – Anthony and Leon Cullen ‘s heavily armed gang and a group headed by Jamie Oldroyd – plus a Liverpool outfit led by Lee Stoba.
Cage fighter enforcer ‘The Bear’
Mixing in such circles, the Tobins needed serious “muscle”. They had it in the form of former UFC competitor Robbie ‘The Bear’ Broughton, from St Helens, who enforced unpaid debts and collected payments on their behalf.
The 6ft 2in, 18st bruiser used an encrypted EncroChat phone with the handle “NovaBear”. He was a close associate of the Tobins, but also in regular phone contact with the Cullen brothers, and offered to move money for other gangs, charging 7.5 per cent commission.
Broughton, 38, of Breccia Gardens, didn’t courier drugs, but prosecutors would estimate he moved £30m of cash. That figure showed the vast profits to be made from the illicit trade.
Much of the money ultimately ended up in Canary Wharf in London, where it was put through various shell companies and “professionally laundered”. The Tobin brothers reaped the benefits, enjoying “lavish lifestyles”.
Up to £150,000 of dirty cash was paid into the bank account of Alan’s wife, Hartley. Meanwhile John amassed an expensive collection of watches and jewellery at his Manor Road, Prescot home.
Lucrative business dealt fatal blow
Alan and John’s drug racket began to unravel after they instructed a man named Jamie Simpson to transport a £20m stash of cocaine from Kent to Warrington for them. Detectives made the largest ever seizure of cocaine on land in the UK when they intercepted Simpson driving the van.
The raid, carried out in the early evening of August 2, 2018, yielded 186kg of cocaine. The illegal load was stashed under floorboards and in a specially adapted “hide”.
Astonishing police helicopter footage showed the moment officers stopped the blue van on the M6 near Knutsford. It was a fatal blow to the brothers’ lucrative business.
John’s DNA was later found deposited on the bubble wrap of one of the drug blocks in the van. Enquiries would reveal that just less than a week earlier on July 28, he had travelled from Kent to Brussels, via Eurostar, where he watched the blocks being placed into boxes during the packing process.
Those details would all emerge as part of a prolonged investigation by detectives. But in the aftermath of the seizure, the Tobins had far bigger problems than the police.
A debt to “The Banker”
The severe ramifications of a colossal win for police when Jamie Simpson was arrested were laid bare when the Tobins were sentenced over their drug conspiracies in April last year. Liverpool Crown Court heard by March 2020 the brothers were struggling with “large debts” which Nicola Daley, prosecuting, said “might not be a surprise” given “they had lost 186kg of drugs”.
She said: “In particular John Tobin was being put under some pressure to pay other people, it may be for wages he hadn’t been able to pay out to them for other jobs. He had been put under pressure to sell his own personal belongings to pay these amounts.”
The EncroChat hack revealed John often sent instructions via Alan to Broughton, to contact someone known only as “The Banker”. Court documents stated that debt collector Broughton sometimes then relayed messages from “The Banker” back to the Tobins.
Ms Daley told the court “The Banker” was believed to be a woman, who was acting as an accountant in the underworld drug trade. Evidence suggested John owed “The Banker” a “significant sum” and the MMA star was “engaged to try to pull that money in and make contact with John Tobin”.
To pay off his debt to “The Banker”, it was suggested that John sell some of his watches or jewellery. But he pointed out police had already seized them, when his home was searched after he was shot.
The ECHO reported how on the evening of February 6, 2020, a 39-year-old man turned up at hospital with a gunshot wound after being targeted on a new housing estate. Neighbours heard a series of shots being fired in the area around Manor Road – the suspected shooting scene on the Brook Road estate in Prescot – at around 8.30pm.
The victim of that shooting was John. His lawyer, Jason Smith, revealed the family man was shot as part of a series of threats and intimidation by those higher up the drug trade.
Mr Smith said: “John Tobin was shot and it followed that there were a number of threats made against him and a number of forceful requests for money from him.” He added: “There were others above them in the chain who weren’t just influencing them, but were intimidating and attacking them.”
‘We wud b millionaires by now’
By April 2020, the Tobins had been forced to become far more “hands on” in their drug conspiracies. That was largely due to the problems they experienced in the wake of the M6 mega haul and jail sentences that flowed for associates in Warrington.
EncroChat data recovered in a hack by French and Dutch authorities led to a “cold case review” by Cheshire Police of old evidence involving the Tobins and past sightings of them with the man driving the van, Simpson, and gang leaders Oldroyd and Anthony Cullen, all of whom had been jailed. Prosecutors said the Tobins had been “selling to one group and when that group was taken out, they began selling to the group that followed”.
Texts showed the brothers were supplying kilos of cocaine, “tops”, kilos of heroin, “botts”, plus “ketts”, ketamine, and “smokes and greens”, cannabis. On April 2 and 3, the pair were discussing deliveries to Darlington and Sheffield, but their fortunes had changed, thanks to the loss of cash and contacts.
Ms Daley said: “There was reference to the ‘links’ they used to have and the word they used was ‘nuggets’, which seemed to relate to those caught by the authorities, who had destroyed those links. Referring to that, there was a comment without that intervention ‘we wud b millionaires by now’.”
Innocent man shot by fake pizza delivery driver
At around 9pm, on the evening of Friday, April 24, 2020, a man called David Barnes was shot at his home in Warrington. A bullet hit him in the lower right leg.
He was not the intended target of a fake takeaway driver, who had knocked on his front door and shouted “pizza delivery”. Mr Barnes was shot because he had the misfortune to answer the door to a gunman who was looking for his stepson – heroin dealer Liam Byrne Junior.
The man who pulled the trigger was Everton squaddie Aaron Bretherton. But the serving soldier was not working alone – he was part of a ruthless conspiracy that could be traced back to the desperate Tobin brothers.
This week, the sentencing of one of the plotters – Norris Green “fixer” Lewis Fitzpatrick – heard the attack was “part of a dispute over who controlled the movement of drugs in the Warrington area”.
Phil Barnes, prosecuting, said Byrne Jnr had “aligned himself” against those responsible and so “he was fair game as a target”. But who had ordered the hit?
“Get me details I fix these muppets”
Liverpool Crown Court heard EncroChat texts showed an alleged gangland boss had been asking crooks to give him information to find rivals in Warrington. This Manchester man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, turned to John.
Mr Barnes said John first asked an associate using the EncroChat handle “Octo-Ox”. That has previously been said in court to have been used by St Helens drug dealer Christopher Dooley, but there is no evidence he was aware of the shooting and he has not been charged with any offences connected to it.
The Manchester man wanted to know about father and son Liam Byrne Snr and Jr. John sent him an image from a directory enquiries website containing the name, address and phone number of Byrne Jnr’s then girlfriend. The names, images and personal details of other potential targets were also exchanged.
On April 22, the Manchester man told Alan: “I’m gonna do all them soon … liam burns … been trying get there address. Get me details I fix these muppets .. There two burns dad and son”.
It was then Alan revealed his desperation. He replied: “Same here bro stressed to f*** with bills no c*** pays chasing me tail all the time rats av put us in a hole, this virus b*****ks has slowed stuff down, is lismburns working again.
“I’ll get there addresses and send them over, I’ve met the two burnes.”
“I want hurt them… show them what time is it.”
The Manchester man said “Burns” was working “for him” – which Mr Barnes said was a reference to the head of the rival group. He said he had been contacting John “every day” for information about that rival group.
Alan assured him he would get information on Byrne Jnr and asked for reconnaissance to be carried out on the addresses. Their plan was starting to take shape.
He would go on to send the Manchester man images of the faces of the father and son, their addresses, satellite images of where they lived and the registration numbers of vehicles they were known to use. The Manchester man was grateful.
“I need these so much bro,” he replied, to which Alan said: “I’m with you mate on that.” Chasing up further details, the alleged gang boss told him: “I want hurt them… show them what time is it.”
Mr Barnes said Alan turned to another associate, referred to as “Rob” and using the handle “NovaBear”, to get those final details. There is no evidence Broughton was aware of the shooting and he has not been charged with any offences connected to it.
Alan would later ask his brother if “Rob” had provided Byrne Jnr’s address, to which John said he had, and that he had sent it on to the Manchester man. John then agreed to accompany his big brother on a reconnaissance trip. Yet John never specifically showed an awareness of an imminent attack.
Second target of bloody war
Bretherton fired up to four shots at 56-year-old Mr Barnes at his home in Poplars Avenue, before he escaped in a Transit van with getaway driver Anthony Morris and Lewis Fitzpatrick. As they fled in a vehicle Morris had taken from the garage where he worked, Morris’ phone searched online for news of the hit, looking up terms including “shooting in Warrington”.
Fitzpatrick, 27, was said to be a go-between those who ordered the shooting and his co-accused. He had joined Bretherton, 24, on a reconnaissance mission to the area earlier that day.
But that wasn’t the only hit planned that night. A second target was Charlie Cullen – the dad of Leon and Anthony Cullen, whose own feared drug gang had boasted access to weapons including an AK-47 rifle, pump-action shotgun, automatic pistols and revolvers.
Leon Cullen was jailed for 22 and a half years in May last year, having been captured in the United Arab Emirates, after nearly two years on the run. Anthony Cullen was locked up for 27 years in 2019.
Hours after the shooting of Mr Barnes, another unidentified conspirator posing as a pizza man, attended a property in Sinclair Avenue in Longford, Warrington, which the Cullens’ father owned, but rented out to tenants. That man left after being told Mr Cullen didn’t live there.
“Take his eyes” and “kill his mum”
In the aftermath of the shooting in Poplars Avenue, the Manchester man sent Alan a screenshot of a news story about it and told Alan to “keep low”. Alan agreed, replying: “Keep it to just us.”
They didn’t stop there. Mr Barnes said: “They immediately began to talk about other members of the opposing group who might be targeted.”
Alan sent the screenshot to John, who asked “who was it he shot”. Alan advised him “don’t search that bud”.
Mr Barnes said the Manchester man then asked Alan which jail a man named “Alvin” was being held in. Alan asked his brother the same question, then replied to the Manchester man: “He’s put me and our kid in this f***ing hole we’re in and caused us so much s***… I will owe you the world bro carve the c*** up.”
The Manchester man responded that he would “take his eyes” and “kill his mum”.
At the Tobins’ sentencing over their drug conspiracies last year, the name “Alvin” was mentioned. Liverpool Crown Court heard on March 30, 2020, Alan had referred to being owed £1.5m by “Alvin”.
Ms Daley said: “It’s believed that [Alvin] was the nickname used by Jamie Oldroyd.”
Name on a hit list
The ECHO has reported how Oldroyd ended up on a gangland hit list. The 29-year-old had a car lease firm, giving him a handy explanation for using 17 different vehicles to move cocaine around the country.
He was once filmed with so much money he needed machines to count it. Detectives believed there was £150,000 in bank notes spread around him in one photo and he was involved in a chase that saw him flee from officers in a £30,000 buggy.
It was Cheshire Police’s Operation Dreadnought, focused on Oldroyd, that led to the capture of his associate Simpson with the cocaine on the M6. Oldroyd soon found himself in terrifying levels of debt.
Businesses linked to his relatives were petrol bombed and had their windows smashed and a family home was shot at. A compound where he kept Mercedes cars was broken into and the vehicles damaged in a campaign thought to have been overseen from Merseyside.
The threat was so severe, detectives had to issue him and his family with Osman letters. Named after a high profile legal case, these official warnings make it clear police have uncovered evidence someone is in genuine danger of being murdered.
It appears the threats persisted, despite the fact Oldroyd had been jailed for 14 years and three months for conspiring to supply cocaine. Simpson, 31, was locked up for 11 and a half years for the same charge.
Plotters arrested and Glock seized
Following the shooting in Warrington, the men directly involved were soon rounded up by the police. Morris, of Fifth Avenue in Fazakerley, was arrested when his van was pulled over by police in Southport two days after the incident, while Bretherton and Fitzpatrick were caught at their homes in May 2020.
A Glock 19, 9mm handgun was recovered from the extractor of the cooker in Bretherton’s Netherfield Road South, Everton apartment. Eight live 9mm rounds and a magazine were found in the fan in the bathroom.
Gunpowder residue was also discovered on a Prada jacket and a backpack inside the flat, as was £5,000 of cash and a smoke grenade. A further £4,000 in cash was recovered from Fitzpatrick’s address in Eldersfield Road, Norris Green.
The Glock found in Bretherton’s flat was the same type of firearm as the one used to shoot Mr Barnes, but tests showed that it was not the same gun. However, EncroChat messages also showed the recent past of that second Austrian weapon.
Gun kept in Croxteth shed
Just days earlier, the Manchester man had spoken with EncroChat user “Racyocelot” about collecting a “strap”. Racyocelot sent him a postcode in the Croxteth area and Fitzpatrick, aka “LimeEagle”, was part of arrangements for Bretherton to collect the gun from the Riviera Drive vicinity.
Fitzpatrick, seemingly inspecting the gun, said “mate this tool been stuck in petrol”. Racyocelot replied that it had been “kept in a shed” and Fitzpatrick told the Manchester man it was wet.
Mr Barnes said: “The fact that Bretherton had placed the gun and the ammunition in warm places in his flat, on the heater and in the cooker hood, in order to dry them out was no coincidence.” The prosecutor said the Glock had been stored in Bretherton’s flat on the orders of the Manchester man – with Fitzpatrick again key to the arrangements.
Sentencing Fitzpatrick this week, Judge Stuart Driver, QC, noted: “You knew your group had shot an innocent man, but you showed no remorse. On the contrary, you arranged the obtaining of another handgun.”
“My life has been ruined”
The devastating impact of the shooting on Mr Barnes, whose tibia and fibula were shattered by the bullet that went through his flesh and bone, was laid bare in court this week. Several operations were needed to rebuild his leg, with metal pins held in place with an external steel cage.
In a victim statement last April, he described how he suffered with anxiety and depression, for which he was medicated. A year on, he said he was still walking only short distances, and even then having to use crutches.
Mr Barnes said he continued to suffer pain and discomfort and the likelihood was his mobility would always be affected. He also reported that after the shooting he had suffered a stroke.
The victim was forced to stop work, cancel training his employer was funding for his approaching redundancy, and felt he would never again be fit enough to work, meaning he and his partner were struggling to pay their mortgage and sustain the life they were used to. His days of socialising and exercising were over.
Mr Barnes said: “He put it in the simplest of terms: ‘My life has been ruined. [It] will never be the same again – the damage caused has been traumatic and life changing.”
Languishing in prison cells
The Tobin brothers helped spread pain and misery across the UK, from feeding addiction to Class A drugs to setting in motion an attack that saw an innocent man open his door to a hail of bullets. But now they and many of the men they did business with are languishing in prison cells.
Between March and May 2020 alone, they discussed deals on EncroChat involving around 73kg of heroin, 83kg of cocaine, 57kg of ketamine and 78kg of cannabis. These drugs had a total estimated street value of up to £20m.
For his role in the drug plots, Alan was jailed for 20 years last April. John was locked up for 19 years and eight months.
In September, Alan was handed a further eight years behind bars, for conspiring to cause grievous bodily harm with intent to both Liam Byrne Jnr and Snr. Judge Driver told him: “Your input into the Liam Byrne Jnr conspiracy certainly led to the ordeal and injury suffered by Mr Barnes.”
Alan was left with a 28-year prison sentence. John was handed a further two and a half years for participating in the activities of an organised crime group, taking his term up to more than 22 years. They will serve 14 and 11 years in prison respectively.
Alan’s wife was also locked up for her part in her husband’s criminality. For possessing criminal property, mum-of-two Hartley was jailed for nine months.
“Dangerous” hitman Bretherton was jailed for 22 years, with an extended five years on licence. He will have to serve nearly 15 years behind bars before he is even eligible for parole. Getaway driver Morris was jailed for 14 years.
Judge Driver said Fitzpatrick, who fell to be sentenced for ketamine and cannabis plots in addition to the shooting plot, was also “dangerous”. He was jailed for 26 years, with an extended five years on licence, meaning he now faces just over 17 years behind bars, before he can ask for his release.
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