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Financial Crime: Collared: how a bulldog puppy helped unravel a $54 million drug ring

It took dogged police work to crack this case.

Authorities were able to sniff out a major international drug ring when one of the dealers sent a photo through an encrypted messaging app of his new puppy wearing a collar that prominently displayed a phone number.

Police in the United Kingdom say that back in 2020 they had been tracking a shipment of over $50 million worth of ecstasy being sent to Australia hidden inside a construction excavator. While cops were listening in on the encrypted message exchange between the dealers, they lacked a vital piece of information: the identities of the culprits.

The big break came, the British Crown Prosecution Service said, when one of the dealers, Danny Brown, 55, sent another of his co-conspirators a photo of his new French bulldog puppy, Bob, through the now defunct app, EncroChat, once a popular platform for criminals.

Investigators spotted a phone number on the dog’s license, which they were able to track back to Brown’s partner, a key piece of evidence that they say allowed them to crack the case.

Brown and five of his co-conspirators, Stefan Baldauf, 62, Tony Borg, 45, Peter Murray, 59, Philip Lawson, 61, and Leon Reilly, 50, were sentenced Tuesday in England to terms ranging from 15-to-28 years, officials said. Attorneys for the men couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The group had arranged to ship nearly half a ton of ecstasy pills from England to Australia, stashed inside the lever arm of an excavator they had purchased for around $90,000. But police were able to monitor the transaction as the group communicated on the encrypted app with updates about the shipment of the machine.

When the excavator arrived in Australia, customs officials removed the drugs and let the machine be picked up by the dealers in Australia. Authorities in England then watched as the dealers in Australia spent several days taking the excavator apart and messaging back and forth with their conspirators in the UK about how they couldn’t find the drugs.

The Crown Prosecution Service said they were able to further prove their case when Baldauf sent a picture of a mirrored street sign that caught his reflection in the background.

“The use of encrypted EncroChat phones failed to prevent the organized criminals being identified and prosecuted. In fact, the messages established, beyond doubt, that these men were responsible for the drug export to Australia. The more they used them, the deeper the incriminating hole they dug for themselves,” said Colette Moore, of the Crown Prosecution Service.  

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