A DRUGS gang boss who continued to run his empire from his prison cell has been jailed for 13-and-a-half years.

Nicholas Knowles used his cell mate's prison phone account to keep in touch with his second in command from Forest Bank jail.

Over an 18-month period the Bury-based gang made thousands of deals, selling heroin and cocaine to drug addicts.

After police, working as part of Operation Rhodonite, shut down their activities in May 2015 four gang members pleaded guilty to being concerned in the supply of Class A drugs.

But Knowles, the head of the 'Tommy' gang, denied conspiracy to supply heroin and cocaine and stood trial at Bolton Crown Court.

Following a four week trial, it took a jury just hours to unanimously find him guilty on Tuesday this week.

For a large part of the trial Knowles was absent from court claiming illness, and he did not attend court for sentencing on Thursday. A warrant has been put out for his arrest.

He was sentenced to 13 years for the drug offences, as well as an additional six months for providing false information while applying for £25,000 in credit to enable him to purchase a new car.

During the trial Colin Buckle, prosecuting, told the jury how the investigation into the gang's activities "produced evidence of an organised criminal business that is well structured and has a clear hierarchy".

The gang used a series of mobile phone numbers, known as Tommy shot lines, to communicate with their customers.

At the time Knowles, later of Ambleside Avenue, Ashton-under-Lyne, was tenant of a terraced house in Merton Street, Bury.

The prosecution case hung around the use of five 'shot lines' which they were able to link to 25-year-old Nicholas Knowles.

The first of the pay-as-you-go numbers received 1,500 communications within 43 days until January 12 2014 but sent only 20 messages, and when the sim card was recovered by police it contained a list of known drug users.

By January 23, a second 'shot line' was being used instead and police found the number stored on a mobile phone, under the name 'Tommy X', belonging to Kelly Ramshaw, who the prosecution claimed was being used by the Tommy gang to deal drugs.

The court was told that the following month Knowles was driving a Mitsubishi Evolution registered to his brother, with gang member Dylan Robinson in the passenger seat, when it was stopped by police in Coronation Road, Radcliffe.

Knowles escaped but Robinson was caught and bags of heroin and cocaine were recovered.

In a search of the car officers also recovered a mobile phone used as the shot line and, after Robinson was arrested, Knowles repeatedly rang him.

"Nicholas Knowles repeatedly rang his friend to try and discover if Dylan Robinson had got away or been arrested," said Mr Buckle.

"When Knowles got no answer he feared the worst and immediately set up a new Tommy shot line."

The drug dealing operation continued with Knowles even funding the purchase of a new BMW for gang member, drug addict Mark Foster, who used it to chauffeur his boss around.

In one week alone in April 2014 the shot line received and sent more than 1,000 texts and calls.

But two months later the operation hit a set-back after Knowles was recalled to prison following an alleged assault on his girlfriend Gabrielle Price.

Before being sent to Forest Bank prison Knowles was held in a cell at Bury police station, where he had managed to secrete a mobile phone which he used to urgently contact his brother, Jason, about moving large amounts of money.

"It further confirms that Nicholas Knowles is the head of the organisation and the proceeds of crime are his to do with as he sees fit," said Mr Buckle.

Knowles also rang the shot line number, held by Cameron Johnson, who reassured him that all would be looked after until his release.

Knowles continued to run his drug business throughout his five week stay at Forest Bank, keeping in touch with his underboss Johnson by using cellmate Michael Bowler's prison phone account. But the calls were recorded and transcripts read to the jury.

On September 2 Johnson was spotted by police in a wooded, overgrown area off Tottington Road, Bury and arrested after throwing away bags of heroin and cocaine following a chase.

Then, on September 28, Knowles and Robinson, in a BMW is Church Street, Ainsworth, were arrested in possession of drugs and a shot line phone.

Throughout the rest of the year the Tommy business continued, with the gang using Old Kays Park in Tottington  to hide drugs and members making trips to a tree in the park to deposit and collect the drugs.

In May 2015 police moved in and smashed the drug dealing operation, arresting Knowles and other gang members.

Dylan Robinson, Cameron Johnson, Nathan Dagnall and Noel Cowan have all previously pleaded guilty to their involvement with the gang.

Adam Watkins, defending Knowles, acknowledged that the father-of-two had been the head of the operation, but appealed to the court for leniency.

He said: 'Knowles cannot be described as the biggest of fish when it comes to class A drugs.

"He had a small group of mostly young men who were the lowest rung on the ladder. They were street dealing in a very limited geographical area.

"He remains a relatively young men capable of changing."

Speaking after the sentencing, a police officer from Bury's organised crime unit, who worked on Operation Rhodonite said: "It demonstrates that we take drug dealing seriously.

"It has implications on the communities we serve. We are grateful for the justice, and the sentence handed out reflects the severity of the case.

"It should serve as a message to other people that engage in this form of criminality."