The senior detective who helped bring four men to justice following a terrifying shooting hopes their significant sentences send out a message to other criminals.
On Tuesday (November 20), four members of a drugs gang operating in Sunderland were jailed for a combined total of more than 68 years following a trial at Teesside Crown Court.
Ringleader Tony Trott, 30, was found to have organised the early-morning shooting carried out on Craigshaw Square on September 12, 2016.
He, along with shooter James Ratcliff, 35, and gang member Lee Barnett, 42, were all handed lengthy jail terms for their part in the incident.
A fourth man, Philip Steabler, 41, was also sent to prison after arranging the destruction of one of the vehicles used in the shooting.
Detective Sergeant Angus Grassie led the complex investigation into the shooting, and believes the outcome of the case ultimately reflected its severity.
“It’s important that the public recognises this was treated seriously by the police and the courts, and the sentences reflect the very serious nature of the offences,” Det Sgt Grassie said.
“Trott is the head of an organised crime group which was engaged in the supply of cocaine around Sunderland. He was prepared to use firearms and extreme violence to run a lucrative criminal enterprise involving Class A drugs.
“What this means is that Trott will not get out of prison until 2034 at the very earliest, and Ratcliff is only eligible to be released in 2033. The sentences adequately reflect the serious nature of the shooting.
“They were responsible for discharging a gun through the window of a house in which three people were stood in the living room. We could have easily been dealing with a murder enquiry.
“This isn’t the kind of job where you jump up and down with joy. However, as a detective, it’s one where you’re immensely proud and relieved to reach a successful conclusion. A lot of hard work has been undertaken to ensure these convictions have been delivered.”
The court was told how ringleader Trott, 30, headed a drugs operation and orchestrated the shooting at the address, which was believed to have been occupied by members of a rival gang.
Trott was accompanied by Ratcliff, who fired the self-loading pistol, and Barnett on the morning of the attack. All three denied firearms offences but were found guilty following a trial at Teesside Crown Court.
The court was also told how Trott, Ratcliff and Steabler were each involved in a conspiracy to supply cocaine in Sunderland and Hartlepool.
Police monitored the men's criminal activity for months and observed drug and cash handovers throughout 2016.
“It was a massive case,” Det Sgt Grassie said. “We looked at more than 100 mobile phones throughout the course of the investigation, took in excess of 450 statements and there was a team of seven detectives working intensely on this enquiry for six months.
“Without doubt, this has been the most challenging and complex investigation that I’ve ever worked on in 25 years with Northumbria Police. But I think the outcome and the sentences show that the work that went into it was vindicated.
“One of the key investigators in this enquiry was Detective Constable Gillibrand, who had the painstaking job of pulling together all the CCTV footage from more than 50 locations, which involved hundreds and hundreds of hours of video.
“He almost single-handedly pored over that for six months and pulled together what essentially became the basis of our case against the defendants.”
As the gang members begin life behind bars, Det Sgt Grassie hopes the message of Operation Burton reverberates around Sunderland and beyond for years to come.
He also believes the investigation – and its successful outcome – highlights the Force’s commitment to detecting and disrupting serious and organised crime.
“At Northumbria Police, we are prepared to throw every resource that we can into investigating any incidents which involve drugs and serious violence, such as this one,” Det Sgt Grassie added.
“We also want to reassure the people in Sunderland that, despite this being a very serious case, there aren’t many incidents like this that happen here. We are able to throw our weight behind these types of investigations because they don’t happen very often.
“When you get the kinds of outcomes that we have here, with the sentences being so significant, we hope this acts as a deterrent to anybody who is considering using violence to further their criminal empires.”
Trott, of South Terrace, Sunderland, was jailed for 26 years with an extended four years on licence for possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life, possession of a prohibited weapon and conspiracy to supply cocaine.
Barnett, 42, of Throston Grange, Hartlepool, was jailed for 16 years after being found guilty of conspiracy to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life and possession of a prohibited weapon.
Ratcliff, 35, of no fixed abode, was jailed for 24 years plus an extended four years on licence for possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life, conspiracy to supply cocaine, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
Steabler, 41, of Thorndale Road, Sunderland was jailed for 35 months after assisting an offender and being concerned in the supply of cocaine.