A gangster’s girlfriend has been jailed after driving six deadly guns to Luton from Manchester at the height of the first coronavirus lockdown. Holly Caldwell, a former nightclub hostess, has been jailed for seven years after she drove the weapons, along with 180 rounds of ammunition, days after families were told to stay at home.
The 27-year-old also couriered drugs for her boyfriend Tareanio Blake, 30, who headed a Manchester organised crime gang alongside Mohammed Shahid, also 30. Caldwell, who was using the money she was paid to save for a deposit on a house, said she had no idea the package in the back of her car contained guns, instead believing it was drugs.
The Manchester Evening News reports Caldwell drove to Luton in a Honda Civic and was told the password for the exchange was ‘covid’, to ensure she handed over the horrifying haul to the right people. Shahid, who was organising the handover, spoke with Blake about his girlfriend’s role in the crime.
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“I don’t know if you wanted me to send her,” he said of Caldwell. Shahid apologised and said he should have asked for Blake’s permission. Blake said he ‘can’t stop someone doing something they want to’.
Police later seized six Grand Power guns from a property in Luton, as well as 180 rounds of ammunition. After being arrested on suspicion of firearms offences, Caldwell said of Blake: “I couldn’t believe he had put me in that situation.”
Another courier for the gang, Ali Hamza, 23, was jailed for nine years. Manchester Crown Court heard how Caldwell met Blake in a nightclub where she was working as a hostess.
After being ‘persistent in his pursuit’ of her, she agreed to start a relationship. Caldwell’s involvement in crime came from a ‘desire to please and assist’ her partner, who she fell in love with and considered marriage and having children with him, her barrister David Bentley said.
“Unfortunately for her within a year or so, she had fallen in love with him,” the barrister said. Mr Bentley said she became a ‘pawn in his enterprise’.
“Of course she now realises she didn’t ask the questions she should have done,” Mr Bentley added. When she was arrested and questioned about firearms, Caldwell said she was convinced that the officers must have made a mistake.
“As the phrase goes, love is blind,” Mr Bentley said. He denied that Caldwell received £2,000 for the trip to Luton, and said she was instead given cannabis and offers of petrol money.
Prosecutors told how Blake and Shahid were the head of an organised crime gang based in Cheetham Hill. Their involvement was uncovered following the law enforcement hack of the EncroChat network, and police surveillance of the gang.
The gang was linked to nine-and-a-half kilos of cocaine, and four-and-a-half kilos of heroin, as well as the supply of ten firearms. Caldwell and Hamza were likely recruited due to their age and their lack of previous convictions, prosecutor Jamie Baxter said.
Hamza also delivered two guns for the gang, and like Caldwell, he said he did not know his cargo was weapons. Prosecutors accepted that both defendants did not know they were transporting firearms.
But Mr Baxter said: “They must have thought that what they were taking was very valuable indeed.” After the hacking of EncroChat, police also carried out surveillance on members of the gang.
Prosecutors said Caldwell and Hamza were ‘established’ and ‘trusted’ members of the gang, and were ‘fundamental’ to the gun-running plot. Both also expected to enjoy ‘significant financial advantage,” Mr Baxter said.
Hamza had more than £16,000 in cash in his bedroom when police arrested him. In one message Blake told how Caldwell nearly had ‘enough cash for her gaff’.
While serving 18 months in prison on remand, Mr Bentley said Caldwell has reflected and admitted being ‘naïve’ and ‘stupid’, and recognises the wider impact of drugs on communities. “She deeply regrets playing a role in that,” he said.
Sentencing, Judge Patrick Field QC described Caldwell as a ‘young woman with potential’. “You have made some poor choices in respect of these offences,” he told her, describing her trip to Luton as an ‘enormous risk’.
“You have let yourself and your family down, I know that you are aware of that.”
Caldwell, of King Edward Road, St Helens, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to supply class A drugs and possession of a prohibited weapon. She was jailed for seven years.
Hamza, of Whiston Road, Crumpsall, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to supply class A drugs, two counts of possessing a prohibited weapon and one count of possessing criminal property. He was jailed for nine years.
Blake, of Peakdale Avenue, Crumpsall, was previously found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to supply class A drugs and conspiring to sell or transfer firearms. Shahid, of Peakdale Avenue, Crumpsall, pleaded guilty to the same offences. Blake was also convicted of conspiring to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life.
They are due to be sentenced at a later date.