THREE men have been thrown behind bars after police intercepted a huge drugs operation across south Essex.

Thomas Dowman, Scott Hearn and David Mifsud were all caught in Basildon and Hullbridge in May this year along with tens of thousands of pounds in drug money and hundreds of grams of cocaine.

They were all jailed at Basildon Crown Court on Friday.

The huge operation was uncovered when police stopped Dowman while he was driving a Range Rover on the A13 in Basildon on May 23 this year.

The 28-year-old, of Lettons Chase, South Woodham Ferrers, had been on police’s radar, and in the car he had £40,000 in cash stashed in a bag, along with five mobile phones, one of which was encrypted.

A later search of the centre console of the car found a further £4,000 in cash.

On the phones were numerous messages where Dowman would arrange drug deals after being sent pictures of compressed blocks of cocaine, which were sent consistently one after the other. Dowman was found in possession of three sets of keys to different properties.

Police raided the first in Southernay, Basildon and found further cocaine, drug paraphernalia and nitrous oxide cannisters weighing around 1,200 grams.

At this point, Hearn, 31, who lived at the address, turned up and confessed the nitrous oxide was his but everything else belonged to Dowman, which was accepted by the authorities.

At an address in Oakleigh Park Drive, Leigh, £35,000 was found stashed in a shoebox.

The final address in Thorpedene Avenue, Hullbridge, saw police greeted by Mifsud, 46, who lived at the address.

The court heard on Friday that police had informed Mifsud the house was being searched for drugs, and he straight away replied that cocaine was in the kitchen cupboard and more was stashed in a wardrobe at the back of the house.

Using keys found on Dowman, police unlocked steel lock boxes to access more cocaine. In total, 633g of cocaine was found in the home, and 711g in total from the whole operation.

Dowman admitted possession with intent to supply cocaine and laundering £79,000, Mifsud admitted possession of cocaine and Hearne admitted supplying nitrous oxide.

Mitigation for Hearn told the court he had been left unexpectedly unemployed and had to find a quick solution to making money to help care for his young daughter, but that it was “the wrong decision”.

Mitigation for Mifsud said he had put himself under pressure to pay back money borrowed from Dowman, and let him keep the drugs at his house, knowing what they were but “had no access to the chests”.

Mitigating for Dowman, Donal Lawler said: “He has let his family down. He lied to them saying they were not allowed in the court because of Covid, but it was because he was ashamed.”

Judge Samantha Leigh jailed Dowman for nine years, Mifsud for six, and Hearn for 20 months.