Alex Yeung - stock.adobe.com
Two men who were accused of plotting a gangland shooting have been convicted at the Old Bailey after police obtained evidence of their plans from an encrypted phone and messaging service.
Paul Fontaine, 36, from Hackney in London and Frankie Sinclair, 26, from Cardiff, were found guilty of using EncroChat’s encrypted messaging system to plot a revenge murder.
The case is the latest in a string of prosecutions based on evidence from EncroChat phones collected by French police using a “software implant” to harvest millions of readable versions of encrypted text messages and photographs between April 2020 and June 2020.
The UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), working with regional organised crime units, the Metropolitan Police and other law enforcement agencies, had made over 2,600 EncroChat-related arrests using the French data by December last year.
More than 1,380 people had been charged with offences and 260 were convicted under Operation Venetic, the NCA’s response to EncroChat. Police have also seized 165 firearms, 3,400 rounds of ammunition, 5,600kg of Class A drugs and £75m in cash.
EncroChat ‘sealed fate’
Speaking after the trial, Detective Chief Inspector Driss Hayoukane, from the Met’s Specialist Crime Unit, said the convictions followed an 18-month investigation as part of the Met’s Operation Eternal probe into EncroChat.
“Paul Fontaine and Frankie Sinclair clearly believed that using encrypted devices rendered them untouchable, and sought to commit the most violent of crime,” he said.
“Ironically, the steps taken by Sinclair and Fontaine to conceal their conspiracies sealed their fate, presenting us with the very evidence used to convict them.”
The court heard that Fontaine had used the EncroChat handle “Usualwolf” and Sinclair the handle “Nudetrain” to communicate with other EncroChat phone users.
Fontaine acted as a “middleman” for supplying drugs, weapons and counterfeit currency to other criminals, said prosecution barrister Kevin Dent QC.
The jury found Fontaine had conspired with others to supply a firearm that was subsequently used in the murder of 29-year-old Abdullahi Mahmoud in March 2020 in Enfield.
Fontaine also conspired with co-defendant Sinclair, who supplied Class A drugs in Cardiff, to procure a handgun and ammunition intended for a “revenge attack”.
The gun was allegedly intended for the murder of a second man, Keiron Hasson, described as a rival of Sinclair.
Fontaine messaged an unidentified EncroChat user called Chestbridge requesting assistance. “He want to duppy,” he wrote.
The court heard that duppy is a slang term for ghost, meaning to kill someone.
Chestbridge responded “30k per body” and “All in”. In other messages, Chestbridge said “Or you provide the tools” and “20k”.
The court heard that, based on evidence from messages and photographs recovered from EncroChat, Sinclair had sourced a Walther PKK handgun, which he referred to as his “James Bond ting”, but was unable to obtain the correct ammunition.
Fontaine later helped Sinclair to obtain a Colt revolver and ammunition as part of a plot to seek revenge after Hasson had allegedly “shot up” Fontaine’s mother’s house in Cardiff in March 2020.
Police recovered CCTV images from Sinclair’s mobile phone – which was not part of EncroChat – showing three individuals with a shotgun, handgun and crossbow attacking the property.
The plot to kill Hassan was not carried out, and Hassan was sentenced to a 24-year prison sentence for attempted murder.
The court heard evidence from Luke Shrimpton, a senior technical officer at the NCA, who explained how the French had accessed data from EncroChat phones.
Shrimpton worked with an expert witness for the defence, Duncan Campbell, to analyse EncroChat data used in the case.
“In broad and general terms, we agree that records show that the implant and processing were not reliable, in that implants frequently and often stopped working, unless or until restarted,” the experts said in a joint report.
“By reason of French secrecy laws, neither of us have any knowledge of how the implants or processing system were designed or operated, nor why they broke down,” they said in an extract read out in court.
Shrimpton, who had worked at the NCA for five years, told the court that although the implants were unreliable, this did not affect the reliability of the data they collected.
Campbell said it was impossible to know whether the French had followed the normal rules of collecting digital evidence because the information was protected by French secrecy laws.
The court heard that Shrimpton had not been trained in the principles of digital evidence.
Sinclair did not dispute the accuracy of EncroChat messages in the case, but said the messages that had failed to be collected by the implant, and were missing from the data, would prove he was telling the truth, the jury heard.
Fontaine did not give evidence.
Summing up, Arlette Piercy, representing Fontaine, said Fontaine was a “bog standard” street dealer still living at home with his father.
“Here we are at the end of the trial, no DNA, no fingerprints, no bank accounts, no actual fake money, nothing,” she said. “When the prosecution says some of the evidence depends on EncroChat, all of it depends on EncroChat.”
Piercy told the jury that Sinclair had used EncroChat to “vent in a safe space” after his mother’s house was attacked, but then went to the police.
“If you are going to duppy a few people, you are not going to give the police a slam dunk,” she said.
Piercy said Fontaine did not give evidence in the case because he feared reprisals if he named names. “On the streets, snitches get stiches,” she said.
James Walker, representing Sinclair, said the court did not have the full picture of the intercepted EncroChat conversations, which were incomplete.
“If you were doing a jigsaw, would you be satisfied if 88.5% of the pictures were missing?” he said.
Walker told the court that Sinclair had to be seen to respond after his mother’s house was attacked.
“The text and the language are nothing more than bravado, just rhetoric,” he told the court “Individuals who sell drugs have to be seen to react. It’s about being seen to react, being seen to save face.”
The court heard that EncroChat phones could only be bought from a website or through word of mouth at a cost of £1,200 to £1,500 for a phone with a six-month contract and technical support.
The phones, which used Dutch sim cards, could only communicate with other EncroChat phones, provided both the sender and receiver agreed.
When turned on, the phones booted up as a standard Android phone screen, but pressing other controls revealed the secret EncroChat screen.
Users had the option of setting burn times, to automatically delete messages, usually after seven days. There was also a panic button that allowed phones to be wiped.
Fontaine and Sinclair will be sentenced on 27 May.
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