A fast food worker with a first class Honours degree was so disillusioned with the jobs market he became a millionaire drug dealer.
Masquerading as a legitimate tea trader, Paul Johnson, imported and sold heroin, cocaine, LSD, ketamine, fluoroamphetamine and cannabis using the internet’s dark web, which is closely associated with the criminal underworld, a court heard.
The 32-year-old former Kentucky Fried Chicken employee secretly ran the business from the attic of his modest semi-detached house in Market Harborough, where he lived with his partner, Lia Johnson, and their child.
Neighbours of the apparently respectable young couple had no idea of the large-scale drugs empire operating in their midst.
Luke Blackburn, prosecuting, said that Johnson primarily dealt in ecstasy and cannabis, but other drugs also featured.
Consignments were imported by parcel delivery from Canada, Spain and other countries.
Johnson would weigh and package it up in his attic ready for distribution by post to customers throughout the UK.
Judge Nicholas Dean QC said: “This business was conducted in a rather unusual way in terms of the more frequent type of case we deal with in these courts.”
On December 13, 2017, the police executed a search warrant at Johnson’s home in Northampton Road, Market Harborough.
Officers seized an array of drugs in the attic along with packaging and labelling relating to Johnson’s bogus business, the Labrador Tea Company, used as a front to dupe to the postal system.
The defendant, a business studies graduate, began drug dealing in early 2015, amassing a turnover of £1,868,946.
He had large sums in the bank on top of £314,358 in Bitcoin currency, seized by the police.
Selling drugs through the dark web
Mr Blackburn told Leicester Crown Court: “He sold drugs through the dark web and was paid either by bank transfer, cash put into his account or with Bitcoin.
“The dark web is used by a variety of businesses, in particular for buying and selling drugs.”
Between August 2016 and November 2017 UK Border Control intercepted 20.8 kilos of packages addressed to Johnson at three delivery addresses he had rented, of which 40 per cent were class A drugs.
They amounted to a quarter of a kilo of cocaine, 8.1 kilos of ecstasy tablets and powder, three kilos of the horse tranquiliser, Ketamine, and eight shipments of cannabis, each variously weighing between half a kilo and four-and-a-half kilos.
A further 170 kilos of drugs successfully made their way to the defendant unopened.
Meanwhile, Johnson bought his £175,000 three-bed semi outright in 2016 and purchased a second-hand Range Rover for £20,000 and a Nissan Juke vehicle bearing a £3,316 private number plate of his wife’s initials.
Both vehicles were used by his wife as Paul Johnson did not drive, the court was told.
The defendant’s “dummy addresses for deliveries” were in Cypress Close, Desborough, and two Market Harborough homes, in Martins yard and Britannia Walk, all with rent, council tax and utilities paid for.
Johnson was said to have spent £34,000 in parcel postage fees alone, with a legitimate delivery company and the Post Office.
Mr Blackburn said: “Paul Johnson did what he did whilst their child was in the house, albeit he worked from the attic.
“His wife knew what was going on, perhaps not all of the details.
“He’s put her in a difficult position as none of her offending would have happened had it not been for him – in her case the money laundering doesn’t represent any drug importation.
“She says she believed most of his business was connected with computer parts, as he had once worked in that line of business and that’s accepted.
“She said she knew he was sending out cannabis to ‘some people.’
“She enjoyed the benefits, such as having the vehicles and the house.”
Judge Dean said: “It was relatively modest spending as £175,000 doesn’t buy much in Market Harborough.”
Paul Johnson pleaded guilty to acquiring criminal money, between February 2015 and December 2017, as well as supplying class A and B drugs.
Lia Johnson admitted acquiring criminal property, their home, and both defendants admitted similar counts in respect of both cars.
James Varley, for Paul Johnson, said the defendant was acting as “a sole trader,” not part of a drug gang.
He said: “He was a working class boy from Yorkshire.
“He studied hard to obtain a first class Honours degree and walked out of university into a job at KFC – and didn’t know why he’d bothered obtaining the qualifications he did.”
Due to the job market at the time he was unable to find anything else.
Mr Varley said: “The offending was done for money, money that he didn’t spend to any great extent.
“He was trying to reach a certain figure and then stop, one often hears that greed takes over.
“He wanted to provide for his wife and child and wasn’t making high on the hog.”
‘He’ll be lucky to get a job any better than the one he ended up with’
Mr Varley added: “He had fairly inexpensive cars and didn’t have expensive holidays; he was trying to generate income to live on and wasn’t flashing large sums of cash around or drawing attention to himself.
“His activities could have been stopped a long time ago, as interceptions were taking place, and he was at risk of being rumbled much earlier.
“He knows there will be a lengthy prison sentence and he’ll be lucky to get a job any better than the one he ended up with when he left university.
“His letter to the court displays insight into his offending and also an apology.”
He said publicity about the case would be embarrassing for Johnson and his family.
Philip Gibbs, mitigating for Lia Johnson, said: “They lived in a modest house and I suggest she turned a blind eye to what was going on.
“There was no flashy lifestyle.
“Most of the money was in the bank account that she didn’t have access to.”
Neither defendant had any previous convictions, the court was told.
Jailing Paul Johnson for eight years, Judge Dean said: “It was persistent and sophisticated offending during a significant period, netting something in the order of two million pounds.”
Lia Johnson was given a two year jail sentence, suspended for two years.
The defendants, who have a four-year-old child, also face having their assets confiscated in a proceeds of crime hearing in May.