A WHISTON man is among a gang which conspired to smuggle a quarter of a million pounds of cannabis into the UK from Europe, who were jailed for a total of 15 and a half years at Liverpool Crown Court yesterday (Monday).

Matthew Fitchett, 29, from Whiston, Peter McIntyre, 33, and John Hill, 37, both from Huyton, enlisted the help of driver Ian Maitland, 52, from Stockbridge Village, to ferry the drugs back from Spain in a hire van.

The trio hid 24kg of cannabis bush in heat-sealed foil bags which were then hidden in cavities within the vehicle to avoid detection.

Merseyside Police officers, working with law enforcement colleagues in France and Spain, established that Spanish-speaking Hill sourced the cannabis whilst Fitchett and McIntyre organised for the drugs to be brought back over by Maitland.

They used a false story of a weekend to Amsterdam as cover for their initial trip to Europe in November 2014 then made separate trips in early 2015 using planes, ferries and the Euro Tunnel to avoid arousing suspicion.

But the Mercedes Sprinter Maitland was driving was stopped and searched by the French authorities in Coudekerque-Branch and 24 kg of cannabis was discovered.

Fichett and McIntyre pleaded guilty to offences of conspiring to import a Class B controlled drug with intent to evade a prohibition / restriction on the second day of their trial.

Fitchett was jailed for three years and six months. McIntyre was sentenced to four and a half years as well as three and a half years for possession of a Class A controlled drug from a separate incident.

Hill pleaded not guilty but was found unanimously guilty by a jury following a five week trial for the same conspiracy offence and was imprisoned for four years.

Maitland was not jailed as he had already spent 10 months in prison in France.

Det Supt Lee Turner from Matrix Serious Organised Crime Unit said: "This case highlights the capabilities we have in teaming up with law enforcement colleagues across Europe to track and catch serious organised crime groups.

“The quantities of drugs being imported were significant and the group stood to make a great deal of money from selling it on the streets of Merseyside via other criminals.

“This is yet another example where cannabis is proven to be a drug with concrete links to serious organised crime, and in fact is not a harmless drug at all.

“We will continue to work closely with colleagues nationally and internationally to take down gangs like this and put them behind bars so that they cannot bring harm to our communities."