A FUGITIVE drug dealer caught after being spotted by an off-duty officer on New Year’s Eve is behind bars.

Police arrested Lee Willis, aged 31, after they swooped on a car as he and his girlfriend left The Last Drop in Hospital Road, Bromley Cross, on New Year’s Day.

When they searched his phone they found a text with a picture of police killer Dale Cregan and the word "HERO".

Willis had been on the run since June 2013 after pleading guilty to drug offences.

He was arrested after a police raid on a home in Stalybridge, where bin liners of cannabis weighing 2.5kg were found with a street value of about £25,000.

Plastic bags containing white powder, drugs paraphernalia including debtors lists, £5,000 in cash and mobile phones were also seized.

When Willis was originally arrested in November 2012 and eventually charged, he told Tameside Magistrates Court he had no links to multiple murderer Dale Cregan.

But when his phone was examined, he was pictured with members of Cregan's family in a pub.

Officers also found a text that Willis sent to a friend, dated just one day after the murders of PC Fiona Bone and PC Nicola Hughes, which contained a picture of Dale Cregan and underneath the text "HERO".

He had been living in Malaga while on the run but returned to the UK last year.

An eagle-eyed police officer recognised Willis, who was one of the National Crime Agency’s most wanted, on New Year’s Eve at The Last Drop hotel.

He had checked in using a fake password with a fake name.

Willis admitted possession of a class A drug with intent to supply, possession of a class B drug with intent to supply and handling stolen goods.

He was jailed for eight years at Minshull Street Crown Court, Manchester.

Police will now attempt to claw back £40,000 using the Proceeds of Crime Act and it is likely he will have to forfeit his BMW.

Det Insp Rob Cousen, from the police's serious and organised crime unit said: “Willis was the ring leader of this drug operation, and between himself and his acolytes organised the supply and distribution of cocaine and cannabis.

"We have all seen the devastating effects that drugs can have on people's lives and it is people like Willis who propagate this market of death, creating an industry that leads to addiction, further criminality and in tragic cases death.

“But rather than face up to his crimes, he chose to go on the run for six months.

"However, if he thought he could escape he was sadly mistaken."

Speaking about the Dale Cregan text, he added: "The vile content betrays a sickening disrespect for the memories of two brave police officers and what he said speaks far greater volumes for what sort of man he is than I ever could.”