A CONVICTED drug trafficker who made international headlines after transforming his life and becoming a community-spirited businessman has been jailed – for a historical smuggling plot uncovered by Customs.
UK-based Nicholas Whitcombe was first jailed in 2015, when he was locked up for six years by the Royal Court for being part of a gang which imported ecstasy, mephedrone and cannabis into the Island.
He resurfaced at the height of the pandemic in 2020 – as a respected gym owner in his home city of Liverpool who gained huge media attention when he led a campaign to reopen fitness centres during lockdown.
In interviews with national UK newspapers, the New York Times and international TV news channels, he spoke about his determination to get gyms reopened to help people’s mental health.
He also told of his extensive community and charity work in the city and elsewhere.
And in a two-part interview with the JEP last year, he described how he had shunned a life of crime and had become an ambassador for a sports nutrition brand, received a handful of community awards and a nomination for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Unsung Hero award.
But although he did not know it, Customs were already on his tail, after discovering incriminating messages on another dealer’s phone which linked him to a smuggling plot in 2018 – just months after he had been released from prison.
The 31-year-old, and his co-accused Anthony Dryden, were yesterday jailed for three years by the Superior Number of the Royal Court, which only convenes for the most serious offences.
Outlining the case, Advocate Richard Pedley, prosecuting, said that the defendants met in prison while Whitcombe was serving his first importation sentence and Dryden was in custody for possessing drugs with intent to supply.
The advocate told the court that Whitcombe played a ‘fundamental role’ in the ‘professional and successful’ 2018 operation, orchestrating the shipment of drugs through the post without ever having direct contact with those physically sending the packages.
Dryden, meanwhile, was the Jersey-based member of the enterprise, whose roles included ‘maintaining a healthy customer base’ in the Island, selling some of the drugs and sending the cash back to the UK, the court heard.
The parcels were all sent to the work address of a third individual – an Australian named Carl Powell.
Following three successful importations in the summer, the pair became spooked when Customs intercepted a package which had been sent by mistake and without Whitcombe’s knowledge.
Mr Powell was arrested and later charged with two unrelated cannabis offences and has since left the Island.
The defendants agreed to a ‘cooling off period’, and three months later, Whitcombe told Dryden he was handing over the UK arm of the operation to a friend, and passed on his details, the court heard.
However, in March the following year Whitcombe played a minor role in a fourth importation when he ensured that his replacement responded to Dryden’s messages. The operation finally unravelled in the summer of 2019 when a shipment sent to a new Jersey-based associate of Dryden was intercepted by Customs. Whitcombe had no involvement in this importation.
The associate was arrested and an analysis of his mobile phone revealed messages to Dryden, who was then detained and had his phone seized.
Analysis of that device revealed that Dryden and Whitcombe had exchanged a host of messages the previous summer, clearly showing they had been involved in a smuggling operation.
Following a delay partly caused by the pandemic, Whitcombe was arrested in the UK in July last year and returned to Jersey. Dryden was re-arrested at the same time.
Both men pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to import drugs, with Dryden admitting a further importation charge and one count of possessing cannabis.
In total the pair were jointly responsible for importing cannabis with a minimum street value of £46,500, and laundered cash totalling £16,750.
Advocate Pedley called for both defendants to be jailed for 3½ years.
Julian Gollop, defending Whitcombe, said that there was ‘significant and exceptional mitigation which justified a non-custodial sentence’.
He told the court that Whitcombe had transformed his life following the historical smuggling operation and had received character references from high-calibre individuals including a barrister, doctor and a candidate who had stood for Mayor of London.
‘This is a case of a man being involved at a relatively high level in drug dealing not once, but twice, and removing himself from that role and prospering,’ Advocate Gollop said.
He added that Whitcombe had supported several charities and that during his gym campaign during lockdown had appeared on national television and received support from UK MPs.
Calling for a non-custodial sentence, Advocate Gollop said: ‘We say this is a piece of exceptional mitigation to see someone change their life so dramatically for the better, not just for himself but for other people.’
Advocate George Pearce, defending 31-year-old Dryden, said that his client accepted full responsibility for the role he had played in the smuggling operation.
He added: ‘He has asked me to apologise to the court for his actions, and he has taken steps to turn his life around since his last period of incarceration and he assures me this is the last time he will find himself before the court.’
Delivering the court’s sentence, Deputy Bailiff Robert MacRae said that at the time of the offences both men were ‘professional drug dealers’ and ‘skilled money launderers’.
Jurats Jerry Ramsden, Kim Averty and Gareth Hughes were sitting.