A heroin dealer has become the first person to be put behind bars as part of the biggest drugs investigation ever to take place in Gateshead.
Mark Hardingham, 41, has been jailed for three years after being arrested as part of Northumbria Police’s Operation Salvator in April last year.
The Force had launched the investigation after figures showed drug-related deaths had tripled in the borough between 2017 and 2018.
Plain-clothed officers spent hundreds of hours carrying out surveillance of suspects they believed to be supplying Class A drugs to vulnerable users.
That culminated in dozens of dawn raids that saw police visit 37 addresses in the biggest day of activity the Force had ever seen.
Hardingham, of Thornbrake, Leam Lane, was one of those arrested as part of the investigation during which officers uncovered over half a kilo of heroin divided into deals - worth £8,000 - in his Land Rover Discovery.
Now he has become the first suspect arrested in the raids to be convicted at court after he pleaded guilty to possession of a Class A drug with intent to supply.
The drug dealer was jailed for three years at Newcastle Crown Court on January 24 where a judge also ordered the forfeiture of his Land Rover.
Following the case, Detective Superintendent Brad Howe praised the hard-work of detectives who continue to bring Operation Salvator cases to court.
He said: “Operation Salvator was launched because of a very concerning increase in drug-related deaths and it showed how seriously we take this type of criminality.
“We have been working closely with partners to safeguard vulnerable drug users and last year we did see a reduction in the number of drug-related deaths in Gateshead.
“However, there is still more work to be done and we will continue to do everything in our power to put dealers like Mark Hardingham before the courts.
“He was motivated by financial greed and he preyed upon vulnerable drug users in Gateshead who were trapped in a cycle of addiction.
“Hardingham is the first of those arrested in Operation Salvator to be jailed but dozens of suspected drug dealers have also been charged and will soon be appearing in court.
“I hope that sends a strong message to those who prey upon vulnerable drug users in our communities and shows local people how seriously we take this criminality.”
Operation Salvator is just one of many operations carried out as part of Operation Sentinel, a co-ordinated policing response to serious and organised crime across the region.
Officers worked alongside Gateshead Council, who part funded the Operation, and seized drugs, cash and weapons during the raids. They also seized 13 vehicles believed to be linked to organised crime.
In total, more than 60 people were arrested during the activity which started in April last year. Since then, 34 people have been charged, four cautioned and 21 others remain under investigation.
Superintendent Howe added: “We work closely with our key partners and local charities to try and get support for those vulnerable drug users locked in a cycle of addiction.
“Our officers will continue to pursue those who prey upon addicts and by taking them off the street we can hopefully get users the help they need.
“If anyone has information about those involved in this type of criminality then please pick up the phone and call police so we can improve the lives of residents in Gateshead.”
If you have any information about drug dealing in your community then call police on 101 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also fill in an online reporting form at the Northumbria Police website or contact independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
Any drug users who need support tackling their addiction can get help by calling Gateshead Recovery Partnership on 0191 594 7821 or visit https://www.changegrowlive.org/content/gateshead-evolve.