A CAR dealer from Bolton led another life as an international drugs baron, jetting between the UK and the Continent in order to organise the importation of tons of cannabis, worth more than £15 million.

Yesterday, at Manchester Crown Court, he and his gang were jailed for a total of 59 years after a police investigation tracked them down.

Scott Byrne, from Sandalwood, Westhoughton, made regular trips to the Continent on the pretext of second hand car dealing or his son competing in motocross competitions.

But in reality he was organising the setting up of fake companies in Spain and Portugal and arranging the movement of industrial quantities of the drug to other bogus firms in the UK in shipments of kitchen parts and vegetables from Barcelona and Grenada.

Byrne was arrested in Spain, where he owned a home near Alicante, on New Year's Eve last year following the issuing of a European arrest warrant.

At the time he was subject to a suspended prison sentence for money laundering.

He denied conspiracy to import cannabis but, following a seven week trial he was found guilty.

The jury heard how Byrne was the Mr Big behind the multi-million conspiracy, overseeing every aspect and frequently travelling to Spain where he was closely involved with other criminals based there.

He used a number of encrypted phones and set up fake businesses in Spain and the UK, working right up to the date of his arrest.

Legitimate transportation companies were used to move the drugs, unaware of the illicit substances they were carrying in the cargo. It is estimated that at least 2.5 tonnes of cannabis bush was brought into the country between July 2017 and October 2018.

Sentencing Byrne, aged 32, of Sandalwood, Westhoughton, to 14 years and two months in prison, Judge Michael Leeming told him: “You were at the very heart of the conspiracy, you were involved in every aspect of it.

“You were careful not to get your hands dirty and you recruited others.

“You used different airports to make detection of your movements more difficult.

“You used your business as a second hand car salesman and trips accompanying your son to motocross events on the Continent to disguise your true activity.”

Byrne was helped in the conspiracy by a number others including his cousin and best friend Wesley Kinsella, aged 31, of Crompton Way, Bolton, who was said to be his "close and trusted associate" integral to the operation.

Also involved was Michael Lawlor, aged 49, of Kenton Close, Bolton, as well as Tony Cadman, aged 32, of Alder Avenue, Widnes, and Lee Jackson, aged 38, of Bradmore Road, Wirral.

Lawlor and Cadman were also found guilty of conspiracy to import cannabis. Jackson and Kinsella pleaded guilty to the same charge and Lawlor and Cadman admitted conspiracy to supply cannabis.

Judge Leeming said: “The objective was obviously to flood the streets, pubs and clubs in the North West and other parts of the country with cannabis and the making of large amounts of money was the primary aim and motivation.

“This offending involved a complete disregard for the impact this sort of criminality has in our society.”

During the sentencing hearing Anthony Stephenson, prosecuting, said the fake companies used in the conspiracy were named Tops Kitchens in Lowton, a Newton Health based cold storage company called Mont Blanc and Prescott Produce in Leyland. An industrial unit in Weston Street, Bolton, was also used.

All the companies were set up with the sole purpose of taking delivery of the drugs, which were vacuum packed in pillow sized packages, then repackaged and distributed.

“The defendants were very careful. They did not push their luck using each company, only using each one for a few shipments before abandoning them,” said Mr Stephenson.

The gang sent the drugs from Spain via the port of Dover and the conspiracy was discovered after several of their shipments were stopped by border control officers.

Some of the drugs were concealed in packages labelled as oven filters and purported to be destined for the kitchen firm.

But the business didn’t exist and the address associated with it actually referred to a yard containing lock-up units behind a convenience store on Newton Road, Lowton, where drugs worth £6.6 million were delivered.

Between September 2017 and August 2018 six further deliveries arrived through Dover with drugs concealed in pallets of lettuce and peppers bound for Mont Blanc, where £8.85 million of cannabis was received.

Further investigations linked it to Michael Lawler, Wesley Kinsella and a second lock-up at Hartford Works, Weston Street, Bolton.

In the Bolton lock-up a stolen Mercedes was found which contained £20,000 worth of cannabis and led police to Lee Jackson and Scott Byrne.

Jackson was sentenced to nine years and four months in prison, Cadman to 12 years and Lawlor and Kinsella each to nine years behind bars.

Also sentenced were Michael Harley, aged 35, and Michael Moore, 30, of Bog Farm in Mold, North Wales, who were each jailed for 33 months.

The gang had arranged for a delivery of cannabis to a remote farm where police found bunkers dug into a hillside which had been used as a commercial cannabis farm.

Harley and Moore had constructed the bunkers to grow cannabis commercially.

However, it was too damp and the attempts at production failed, the court heard.