A PAIR of teenaged boys who ran County Lines drug operations while in the care of Devon County Council have been spared jail sentences.

The boys were 13 and 14 when they were recruited by a Liverpool based organised crime gang and rose up the ranks until they were running their own lines when they were aged just 15.

One boy controlled a drugs line in Exeter when he was on a specialist high supervisions placement in Essex, sending scores of text offers to addicts and arranging for runners to deliver heroin and crack cocaine.

Both boys carried on dealing despite being in care at homes or foster placements in different parts of Devon including Kingsteignton, Uffculme, Bideford and Torbay.

One of the two even organised drug deliveries on a day when he was in court in Exeter accused of earlier dealing. He was supposed to have been under supervision by a social worker at the time.

They helped run a network of 35 different drugs lines which sent out 3,000 bulk advertisements to users over a 14 month period leading up to February 2022.

They were part of a 16-strong gang that supplied the whole of the county, with messages mentioning Exmouth and Newton Abbot. The total amount of drugs ran into many kilograms and the value to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The boys, both now aged 17 and both still in council care, denied conspiracy to supply heroin and cocaine but were found guilty after a trial at Exeter Crown Court last year.

They were both made subject of three-year Youth Rehabilitation Orders by Judge Anna Richardson, who took over the case from Judge Timothy Rose, who has died since conducting the original trial.

She told the boys that they would have received ten years apiece if they had been adults but that her priority was rehabilitation because they are both under 18.

She said they had played different roles in the conspiracy but had both been drawn in by grooming and that they had then been exploited because of their youth, vulnerability and gullibility.

The Judge said texts sent between the boys in which they bragged of being ‘the bosses’ and joked about modern slavery had been bravado rather than a true reflection of their position in the conspiracy.

Mr Joss Ticehurst and Mr William Parkhill, who represented the boys, said they have both stayed out of trouble for months, have good reports from social workers, and would be drawn back into crime if they were sent to jail.

During the trial, the jury heard the boys controlled ‘graft phones’ that were used to text out offers, take orders and arrange deliveries.

At various times they were in specialist placements in Wales, Essex and Devon, only one of which proved successful in stopping them, in each case only during 12 week stays.

One boy already had previous convictions for arson and drug dealing and was already subject to ‘intensive supervision’ but carried on dealing as if nothing had happened.

He gave evidence at his trial that he had not been to school throughout this time.

The boys were arrested a total of ten times with drugs cash, or weapons, including knives and an air gun, and returned to the care of the local authority on each occasion.

Text messages between the pair boasted about earning £1,200 a day. One told a friend of his mother, who tried to get him to stop: ‘This is so my lifestyle. Does it look like I’m working? I party every week. I do whatever I want and I buy whatever I want.’

They also shared photos of a gun and large sums of cash and boasted: ‘We’re meant to be the bosses, ain’t we?’ and ‘Having a great time smacking up the punters all day long.’

The two boys both claimed to be victims of modern slavery at their three-week trial.

They both said they were in debt to an organised crime gang because of drugs which had been lost or seized by police during earlier arrests.

After the initial conviction, Mrs Ann Hampshire of the Crown Prosecution Service said: ‘This was an unusual case involving some young people who took on leading roles in the criminality, instructing other youths to work on their behalf in the illegal drugs trade.

‘It was particularly concerning to find that some of the youths also carried weapons. This kind of behaviour risks serious harm to the person carrying the weapon and those who they may encounter.’

'Safety of children is our priority'

A Devon County Council spokesperson said: ‘We won’t talk about specific cases. The safety of all children in our care is our priority, and we have rigorous processes in place to support them and promote their well-being.

‘Our processes are constantly under review to ensure best practice, and children’s health, safety and general wellbeing are at the centre of our all our work on their behalf.’