Former Walsall FC player Shylo Thomas ran a network of street dealers alongside Malachi Mitchell, 26, nicknaming themselves “Turbo”, Stafford Crown Court heard.
The “aggressive and intimidating” 28-year-old recruited vulnerable teenagers in Birmingham and ensured they were cut off from their families while the gang used them to sell 1.5kg of class A drugs over a seven-month period.
Some as young as 15, the jury was told.
These dealers were given accommodation in the homes of Staffordshire drug users, in a process known as “cuckooing”, or occupied premises as squatters, the court was told.
Thomas, who also played for various non-league football teams, detailed the teenagers’ income, rent payments and shift patterns in a handwritten letter, later discovered by detectives.
He was arrested with Mitchell in 2018 after police found mobile phones used in the operation, which sent up to 80 texts per day.
Thomas was found with one of the “Turbo” phones and a mobile belonging to a 15-year-old girl he was exploiting as a street dealer.
“It is a tragedy to see such exploitation of the young,” said Judge Jonathan Salmon during the sentencing. “This was a difficult case and considerable time and expertise was demonstrated by the officers who investigated.”
Detectives also pieced together evidence from CCTV, mobile phones, forensic examinations and automatic number plate recognition.
Officers found drug-users placed an order with one of the lines and Thomas and Mitchell remotely directed their street dealers to carry out transactions across the Staffordshire towns of Burton upon Trent and Rugeley.
Thomas, of Handsworth, Birmingham pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply heroin and cocaine.
He was jailed for 10 years alongside Mitchell, of Edgbaston, Birmingham, who was sentenced to three years and seven months.
Four other men and a youth were also sentenced for drug dealing offences.
Detective Sergeant Jim Byrne, of Staffordshire Police, said afterwards: “We’re glad this conspiracy, which was highly organised, has been brought to an end and this group are now serving their sentences. We will not tolerate drug-dealing in Staffordshire and, following on from a number of successful convictions across the county, we will continue to bring offenders before the courts.”
County lines was estimated to be a £500m industry, with 2,000 established “lines” across the UK, in a January report by the National Crime Agency, but the trade’s scale has likely grown since.
A third of the roughly 4,000 people linked to county lines in London alone are thought to be under 18, with recruiters tending to target those who have been excluded from school.
Additional reporting by SWNS
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