Brutal crime group caught by its own messages

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Vincent Coggins is revealed for the first time as leader of the ultra-violent Liverpool crime group
By Bronagh Munro
BBC Panorama

More than 30 serious criminals have been jailed after police cracked their encrypted text messages and uncovered a violent feud over stolen drugs.

Crime bosses in the Huyton Firm had planned to murder the men they thought had taken more than £1m of cocaine from them.

After a successful challenge in court, BBC Panorama obtained 10,000 of the firm’s messages.

They reveal plans for brutal violence, including a hand-grenade attack.

The Huyton Firm – named after the part of Merseyside where it is based – has been run for 30 years by two secretive brothers. Following the conclusion of a series of trials at Manchester Crown Court, they can now be identified as Vincent and Francis Coggins.

The brothers and others in the firm spoke freely on the EncroChat messaging system, believing their encrypted conversations were completely secure.

Their messages give a unique insight into the inner workings of an organised crime group, revealing that:

Vincent Coggins ordered violent attacks and murders, and boasted about personally slashing a businessman with a knifeFrancis Coggins sent photos of blocks of cocaine and the brothers discussed a deal for half a tonne of the drug – valued at about £16mThe brothers talk about being helped by a corrupt police insider they refer to as “piggy”Key members of the firm shared personal photos, which helped police identify them behind their online usernames

Matt Horne, former deputy director of investigations at the National Crime Agency (NCA), told Panorama the gang’s “industrial-scale trafficking of drugs” and willingness to resort to severe violence put them “in the upper tiers of organised crime in the UK”.

In one message, Vincent Coggins threatened to torture a local businessman: “then we deside weather we slash him ,chop his fingers off or wotever”. (All the crime group’s messages are reproduced here with their original spelling and punctuation.)

Armed police were stationed outside court as the trial of the last member of the Huyton Firm was held

The next day, he boasted about how he had slashed the man with a knife: “slash across face an smashed his eyes in an took half an ear an tonge”.

The brutality of the Huyton Firm even shocked rivals in Liverpool’s notoriously violent criminal underworld.

One anonymous source, who knows Vincent Coggins well, told Panorama that the crime gang were “deeply hated” by many people because of the “level of depravity that they go to, to instil fear and terror”.

The messages talk about the Huyton Firm being helped by a corrupt police insider. The insider appears to have provided the crime group with printouts from the Police National Computer, that allowed the gangsters to see what detectives knew about them.

Merseyside Police says a thorough and extensive investigation was conducted by the anti-corruption unit and no officers or staff were identified in relation to misuse of police systems.

Like thousands of criminals around the world, the Huyton Firm thought the EncroChat software would keep their messages completely secure and their identities secret.

But French police cracked the encryption app and shared messages about 7,000 British criminals with the NCA in 2020.

The messages covered the period when one of the Huyton Firm’s drug stash houses in Liverpool was robbed by rival gangsters.

In total, 32 serious criminals linked to the raid have now been convicted.

Vincent Coggins, who used the EncroChat handle “Moonlitboat”, has been jailed for 28 years for drug trafficking and blackmail.

Other jailed crime group members include enforcer Paul Woodford (24 years and six months), drug dealer Michael Earle (11 years) and money man Paul Fitzsimmons (12 years and six months).

Their convictions could not be reported until the completion of the trial of Edward Robert Jarvis – another major player in the Huyton Firm.

He was found guilty of drug trafficking and blackmail at Manchester Crown Court on Thursday.

Crime boss Francis Coggins is on the run and believed to be abroad.

The Crown Prosecution Service initially refused to release the 10,000 messages from the Huyton Firm that had been used in court.

But Panorama obtained the messages after making an application to the judge. They provide a vivid account of how the crime group tried to exact violent retribution after the cocaine heist.

Saturday 23 May 2020 – 09:30 BST

A young man makes a frantic 999 call from a semi-detached house on a residential street. He and his dad have just been attacked by masked men, armed with a machete and an axe.

When police turn up, there is blood everywhere. The two men inside are keeping quiet. Nobody talks about the Huyton Firm. But this time the police have a secret weapon.

Police bodycam still of one of the injured men in Huyton Firm’s stash house

They have access to the messages that members of the crime group are sending each other. They show that 30kg of the Huyton Firm’s cocaine has been stolen, a haul worth £1m.

The gangsters are shocked that someone has dared to rob them. And they want revenge.

The user named Moonlitboat is giving the orders on EncroChat, demanding that the robbers are identified and killed.

When police later identify him as Vincent Coggins, one of the pieces of evidence is a photo he had sent on EncroChat of his new coffee machine – identical to the one found in Coggins’ home.

Sunday 24 May 2020 – 22:24 BST

The day after the cocaine heist, Vincent Coggins gets his hands on CCTV of the robbery from a neighbour’s house.

The footage shows three masked men getting out of a van. A fourth man was carrying a parcel, pretending to be a delivery driver. Within four minutes, they make their escape with the Huyton Firm’s cocaine.

CCTV caught the four men pulling up outside the stash house in a white van

The group’s messages show the video was obtained by Thomas Cashman – a hitman for the Huyton Firm.

Cashman would later be jailed for life for the murder of nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel, who was caught in the crossfire of a gangland shooting.

Tuesday 26 May 2020 – 08:05 BST

Vincent Coggins orders one of his lieutenants to send the CCTV to everyone they know. Within hours, they think they have identified some of the robbers.

Later that night, Coggins messages his enforcer, Paul Woodford, and says he is planning to use a “pineapple” to kill them – referring to a hand grenade.

Woodford replies: “I kill him with u m8”.

Vincent Coggins, left, discussed killing his enemies using hand grenades with his enforcer, Paul Woodford

Woodford has previous convictions for attempting to scalp a woman in the UK and for possessing firearms in the Netherlands. Dutch police thought he was planning to murder a rival crime boss.

Friday 29 May 2020 – 19:27 BST

Vincent Coggins has identified four suspects, including local drug dealers Brian Maxwell and his son, Brian Maxwell Junior.

But he has got the wrong men. The Maxwells had nothing to do with it.

In fact, four different gangsters are later convicted of the robbery after their EncroChat messages were also gathered by police.

Even though Maxwell Senior had not been involved, he is terrified by the threats from the Huyton Firm. He messages the crime group on EncroChat, saying he has a “solution” to save his family which “involves me and me alone paying the bill”.

Brian Maxwell agreed to pay off Coggins, after the crime group boss accused him and his son (right) of stealing the cocaine

Maxwell Senior agrees to hand over £1.36m to cover the stolen cocaine, from a robbery he did not commit, because he is so scared of Vincent Coggins.

Coggins promises Maxwell Senior his family will be safe if he pays up. But he then sends a very different message to his enforcer, Paul Woodford.

He writes: “I’ll kill them in few months wen its all calm down. Very stressful week. Need a little brake, then I come back.”

Woodford agrees to help kill them.

Vincent Coggins and Paul Woodford were arrested before they could carry out their threats.

Brian Maxwell Senior later pleaded guilty to supplying drugs and was sentenced to 13 years and four months. His son, Brian Maxwell Junior, was jailed for 18 years after admitting firearms offences.

The 32 convictions linked to the May 2020 heist are just one part of a much wider success in the fight against organised crime.

The EncroChat breakthrough has led to the conviction of 1,600 criminals across the UK.

Matt Horne, who led the NCA’s national investigation into EncroChat, said the Huyton Firm’s messages after the cocaine heist showed “an organised crime group using the same sort of tactics and techniques that might be used by law enforcement” – but with the aim of retribution, serious violence and potentially murder.

But he said EncroChat has completely changed the game in the police’s fight against organised crime. “What it’s done is it’s opened up that world and shone a light on it like never before.”

You can watch Panorama’s The Crime Bosses who Terrorised a City on BBC Two at 20:00 BST on Thursday and on BBC iPlayer (UK only).

2 July 20207 January9 April 2023

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