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‘Foot soldier’ booked Airbnb flats for Oxford cocaine conspiracy


Oct 3, 2022

A ‘foot soldier’ in a multi-million pound drugs conspiracy hired Oxford Airbnb properties to warehouse and process kilos of cocaine and ketamine at a time.

Despite drugs with an estimated street value of £1.5m passing through his hands over just two weeks in May 2020, Benjamin Chen received just £2,000 for the risky work.

His barrister, Janick Fielding, said the 26-year-old defendant was guilty of two ‘acts of lunacy’.

The first was that his university-educated client should get involved in the drugs business in the first place.

Secondly, having got out early and flown to Taiwan, where his dad lives, he left that life behind to return to his native UK last Christmas and help out his mum. He did it despite knowing that the heavily-encrypted Encrochat network he had used to communicate with others in the conspiracy had been hacked by the police.

“He chose to come back to the UK, knowing the Encrochat bubble had burst, knowing what he had done and had left behind him could be looked into,” Mr Fielding said.

“Most people in that situation, with the opportunity not to come back would never have done so.

“The defendant had put his criminal offending behind him and had resolved never to go back to it, had engaged in hard, solid work and looked to build a future for himself.”

Prosecutor Lisa Goddard told Oxford Crown Court on Friday that Chen was a ‘foot soldier’ in a much larger drugs conspiracy operating in the city in the first half of 2020.

Messages sent between the conspirators on heavily-encrypted Encrochat phones, which were intercepted by French police and passed to the UK authorities, pointed to the gang handling at least 150kgs of cocaine. The cocaine alone was worth £5.5m on the wholesale market, with a street value of £15m.

Chen’s job was to transport blocks of cocaine or ketamine. He also rented Airbnb properties to warehouse the drugs.

Over his two-week involvement between May 6 and 21, he was estimated to have handled 15kgs of cocaine and 3kgs of class B drug ketamine.

He was paid £2,000 for his part in the conspiracy. Unlike others involved in drugs supply, he was said to have been able to walk away from the trade.

Mr Fielding, mitigating, said his client, while a schoolboy, had been on the fast-track to playing professional rugby. But a number of head injuries sustained while playing the sport had left him with ‘mental health side effects’ including depression and anxiety.

Benjamin Chen's mugshot

A series of character references spoke of his caring and supportive traits. Since his remand in custody, he had been awarded enhanced prisoner status and was regarded as a role model to other inmates.

Chen, of Benson Road, Headington, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs.

Judge Nigel Daly jailed him for six years, telling Chen: “Perhaps you didn’t come back to face the music but the effect of you coming back is that is what you are doing.”

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This story was written by Tom Seaward. He joined the team in 2021 as Oxfordshire's court and crime reporter.

To get in touch with him email: Tom.Seaward@newsquest.co.uk

Follow him on Twitter: @t_seaward