Some of the most notorious criminals of the past decade were busted in 12 months that offered extraordinary insight into Liverpool’s underworld.
Detectives brought down schoolboy terrors who graduated to the ranks of Merseyside’s most violent and a bomb maker named one of the region’s most dangerous men.
Armed prison convoys became a common sight as the city hosted several of modern gangland’s biggest court cases, hearings that detailed tactics and trends that have governed the battle for our streets over recent years.
Tales of bad luck, moments of panic and investigative skill highlighted how even the most sophisticated plots lie just a split-second from collapse.
But the same cases revealed Merseyside criminals still hold international influence.
And while the long-term trend for gun crime is positive, 2019 was still a year that featured six double shootings and the emergence of a new flashpoint for trouble.
After 12 months of drama, this is what we learned about the state of play in gangland Merseyside.
Liverpool’s most notorious locked up as “The Lam”, “The Turk” and gangland armourer removed from streets
Among the biggest names locked up last year was Liam Cornett.
Known as “The Lam”, the 29-year-old already had convictions for affray and offences that amounted to the attempted murder of a Dutch police officer when he came under the scrutiny of the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit in 2017.
Operation Anvil was sparked by an accidental grenade explosion and went on to identify how Cornett controlled heroin, cocaine and amphetamine operations across the UK from his Costa del Sol HQ.
Those exploits funded the £58,000 Rolex he was wearing when arrested at Manchester Airport, and an Audi bought with £55,000 in cash.
Whether or not his reputation was justified, he was deemed so serious the Home Office allocated extra resources to tackling him.
And the sentence the Huyton gang leader received – 26 years – was one of the longest ever handed to a city drugs boss.
Like Cornett, Ciaran McHale required an armed escort during his trial.
Known as “The Turk”, he was one of five thugs previously handed gang injunctions over violence on the streets of Toxteth and Dingle.
McHale, who once stabbed a fellow prisoner in a row over a hygiene certificate, was jailed after being linked to hollow point bullets found in a Smith and Wesson handgun.
The 26-year-old, from Aigburth, has since been compared by some to Huyton criminal Kirk Bradley. Bradley is serving a life sentence for organising a gang war.
McHale was captured by Operation Bombay, which centred on underworld armourer Christopher Wallace and drugs gang the Eastside Boys.
The 35-year-old, one of Merseyside’s most dangerous men, was a bomb maker who scored guns from Nottingham and distributed them.
He was jailed for life with a minimum term of 15 years and six months.
While powerful crime figures still hold sway from the shadows, in taking out the likes of Cornett, Wallace and others, there is no doubt Merseyside Police and the agencies that support them have landed significant blows.
Un the end, Wallace was busted after the brothers who led the Eastside Boys turned to him for firepower in a gangland dispute linked to gun battles in Speke.
Across 2016 and 2017 there were 10 shootings in 14 months within the area, including attacks that left children injured.
Jack Ross was jailed after his DNA was found on a hunting rifle used in one of those shootings – an incident in which three men were hurt.
The 22-year-old could not be connected to the shooting itself, but the drug dealer was jailed for three years for possession of a prohibited firearm.
His Welsh exploits included trafficking two children from Cheshire to sell drugs.
Teen terrors graduated to some of Merseyside’s most violent
Like Cornett and McHale, Dylan Westall was on the radar of Merseyside Police long before his latest convictions.
Police had identified him as a gold status “gun nominal” – suspected of involvement with firearms – as long ago as 2012.
In October 2017 he was involved in the fatal shooting of James Meadows.
The 17-year-old was hit in the head by a bullet fired while he rode on the back of a scrambler bike.
While on the run, Westall was involved in shootings in Kensington and Whiston before finally being arrested when armed police rescued a man who was subjected to sadistic violence to exact a ransom.
Westall was sentenced to life with a minimum term of 22 years for the manslaughter of James and conspiring to possess firearms with intent to endanger life.
Locked up alongside him was Michael Roberts, who was involved in the attack on James and the Kensington shooting.
He was convicted of manslaughter and the gun conspiracy.
Jailed for life with a minimum of 12 years, the 25-year-old was another young thug who failed to heed warnings about his future.
Nicknamed “Little Knocker”, Roberts told his murder trial jury he was first convicted of an offence aged just 13.
Relative unknown found to be responsible for one of UK’s most audacious smuggling plots
Lance Kennedy was not a name widely known on Merseyside before being busted in Operation Spoonbill.
But that investigation revealed him to be a major player in the importation of drugs from Europe to the UK.
The Birkenhead plotter’s network rented secluded holiday homes on helicopter flight paths into southern England.
Those helicopters were loaded with cocaine then landed in the fields surrounding the rural retreats and unloaded by Kennedy’s underlings.
By sticking to common routes and keeping the disappearances from RADAR brief, it was hoped flight trackers would not grow suspicious.
Reports of bedsheets being spread out in fields did not help them evade suspicion though.
Kennedy’s gang was Wirral-led but most influential in the North East, and it was Cleveland Police that busted it.
He fled to Thailand before being arrested at gunpoint as he tried to cross a river from Moldova into Ukraine.
The 32-year-old was extradited to high-security HMP Frankland – dubbed “Monster Mansion” due to the evil criminals it holds – because detectives feared there was a genuine risk he would be sprung.
The dad-of-four watched via video link when he was jailed for 18 years and four months after admitting conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.
Had he not pleaded guilty – a move that saw his sentence reduced by one third – he would have been jailed for 28 years.
Terrifying arsenal backed up street dealing gang
A less sophisticated but still terrifying organisation was WAVO 420.
Led by James Lunt, the group was a drug dealing crew in Wavertree.
At his disposal was an Uzi capable of firing 600 rounds a minute and a self-loading Beretta fired in almost 20 shootings in Scotland and Merseyside and known as British crime’s most-used gun.
WAVO 420 was connected to just one of those – the final blast before it was seized after being transferred to a thug in Kirkby.
That Stevenson Street shooting was a gangland attack in which the victim was repeatedly blasted – only surviving a headshot because he was wearing a motorbike helmet.
Lunt did not carry out the shooting but a judge concluded he was aware of it.
The 29-year-old pleaded guilty to drugs and firearms conspiracies and was jailed for 21 years with an extended licence of 36 months.
Two of his crew – Alan E’von and Lee Tierney – were also among those jailed over the gang’s antics. Both received ASBOs in 2013 when the WAVO 420 shot to prominence as a teen street gang.
Fall in fatal shootings and gun blasts well-down on highpoints of recent years – but one worrying trend has emerged
Although there were times when gun crime flared in 2019, the number of shootings was similar to recent years.
The severity also reduced.
One-time hotspot Speke went its second full year without a reported shooting and, though still serious, recent attacks in Kirkby and Dovecot are thought to be rooted in personal disputes rather than escalating gang wars.
In both 2017 and 2018 there were four fatal shootings, while in 2019 there was one – the currently unsolved attack on dad James Taylor in February.
Among more than 60 shootings on Merseyside, six of the attacks – in Norris Green, Aigburth, Birkenhead, Kirkby, Croxteth and Walton – were shootings in which two people were injured.
The Aigburth incident is thought to have been an accident.
The most notable trend to have emerged this year is the migration of gun crime to Wirral.
Like Warrington, where high-profile drug and gun gangs have also been taken out this year, it has traditionally been seen as a place where Merseyside criminals can lie-low when under pressure from police or rivals.
The ECHO is aware of just one confirmed shooting on the peninsula across 2016, 2017 and 2018.
In 2019, however, there have been at least seven.
Much of the trouble has been in Birkenhead and is thought to be linked to a battle for the town’s drugs trade between local firms and a Kirkdale gang. Suspected leading figures in two of the gangs are thought to have been shot amid the violence.
Another factor could be the emergence of the region as a hub for some of the region’s biggest crime conspirators – gun supplier Wallace was based in Woodchurch when he was busted and stored his cache of weapons in Seacombe.
Kennedy is from Birkenhead, also the hometown of brothers Joseph and Gregory Mulhare.
In another of the year’s biggest cases they were jailed for running a multi-million pound drugs plot that funded luxury holidays but was brought down with the help of a supergrass.
Their gang was jailed in 2018 but they were sentenced just before Christmas after being captured in Thailand.
Perhaps the biggest indication of gun crime concerns on Wirral was a National Crime Agency strike day on a suspected gun smuggling racket traced back to Bulgaria.
Before the raids, in which snipers were used to cover search teams, 56 guns were seized in the operation – including three on Merseyside and 14 in the post.
Connections to Greater Manchester and beyond
That was one of a host of investigations – including those that busted Cornett, Kennedy and the Mulhares – that served as evidence of Merseyside criminals being active on the continent.
Liverpool Crown Court heard claims Cornett ran drugs to the Netherlands and it was there where The Maniac, a Liverpool gangster referred to as “that crazy Englishman” was drafted in by a Turkish drugs lord to settle a multi-million pound dispute.
A Dutch court heard he threatened to throw a grenade into a family home then plotted to kidnap a woman so she could be held hostage at a farm.
Closer to home, the year began with the conclusion of one of the highest-profile gang trials in recent years.
The murder of Paul Massey – known as Salford’s “Mr Big” – sent waves crashing through the murky waters of Britain’s organised crime scene.
Gunned down in 2015, the 55-year-old’s killing was rooted in a bloody feud between two rival factions in Greater Manchester.
But the bloodshed – and with it the clues that helped Merseyside Police play a crucial role in catching his assassin – arrived in the area three years later when the same hitman struck again.
Mark Fellows, nicknamed ‘The Iceman’, shot dead gangland fixer John Kinsella while he walked his dogs on a countryside path in Rainhill.
Kinsella, originally from Everton, was a figure who gained notoriety after stepping in to help Liverpool FC legend Steven Gerrard when he was being targeted by a city gangster.
He was also a close friend of Massey, carrying his coffin at his funeral.
Fellows was convicted of pulling the trigger in both murders, while Steven Boyle was found guilty of being a “spotter” in Kinsella’s killing.
The pair, whose armed prison escort shutdown key Liverpool routes, grinned as they were read the verdicts.
Fellows has since been slashed in the face by a gun and drugs thug from Widnes who attacked him with a “shank” in HMP Whitemoor.
The deadly Salford feud highlighted connections between organised criminals in Merseyside and Manchester.
While it is easy to read too much into the interaction between the two separate crime worlds, links do exist.
Liverpool remains a source of drugs, guns and encrypted phones, as shown by the shooting of a seven-year-old boy and his mum as part of the same battle that claimed the lives of Massey and Kinsella.
The Heckler and Koch 9mm semi automatic handgun used in that attack – and another linked to the same gang – was used nine times on Merseyside before crossing the M62 to Greater Manchester.
Gunmen have travelled in that direction too.
In April, the courts heard of a crew from Merseyside that travelled to Greater Manchester to carry out an attack that left a man with a bullet lodged in his spine.
Among them was Bryan Thomas, an associate of Dylan Westall.
The 19-year-old, who has links to Formby and Kirkby, was jailed for 17 years with a four-year extended licence.
The address targeted was the family home of a man alleged to be a Salford gang leader.
Beyond Salford there is still evidence of interaction between Merseyside and Manchester.
As well as drugs and guns, cars are also known to move between the two regions.
When Cornett used the profits of his drug-dealing empire to pay cash for a new Audi, the man who sealed the deal was a Manchester thug now serving a huge sentence for gun and drugs offences.
Another criminal claimed to have spread the influence of Merseyside gangs beyond the region’s borders was Paul Ferraiolo, jailed for supplying cocaine to a Warrington network.
The 42-year-old, who lived in Widnes and drove a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, was said to be closely connected with powerful gang figures in Merseyside.
Major cases already scheduled in 2020
High profile court cases scheduled for the opening months of 2020 could offer further insight into the region’s underworld.
Daniel Burdett – suspected of being the ringleader of a gun importation plot – was arrested during his Christmas Day dinner in the Netherlands.
The 28-year-old was one of the UK’s most wanted men and is now awaiting extradition.
He is facing ten charges of conspiracy to import firearms and conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs.
Raids on suspected members of a Kirkby gang linked to grenades led to arrests in December while Gary Swift and Scott Kilgour are due to be sentenced soon after they pleaded guilty to importing Class A drugs into the UK.
Swift, 53, and Kilgour, 41, were arrested on a yacht at Fishguard Harbour after it was intercepted in August.
Search teams discovered 751 kilos of cocaine with a potential street value of £60m on board.
They are scheduled to be sentenced early this year in what is set to provide another example of the outrageous ambition displayed by criminals seeking to profit from crime – and the ability of the region’s detectives to untangle their webs of deception.