A FORMER Stalybridge Celtic footballer has been convicted after firearms, ammunition and Class A drugs were seized from his home in a National Crime Agency investigation linked to Operation Venetic.
Paul Shepherd, 43, who played for clubs including Leeds United and Luton Town, was charged by the NCA with firearms offences after a Glock semi-automatic pistol and a Howa bolt-action rifle, as well as 200 rounds of ammunition were seized from his home on Stainbeck Lane, Leeds, in April last year.
Shepherd made 16 appearances for Celtic in 2005, scoring two goals, having earlier made one start for Leeds nine years earlier at Arsenal.
The full back, who also had a spell at Oldham Athletic without making a senior appearance, was also a member of the England squad at the 1997 World Youth Championships.
The NCA launched an investigation when an encrypted Encro phone and drugs were found at Shepherd’s home. He had earlier been stopped in his car by officers from West Yorkshire Police, who found a block of cocaine in his vehicle.
The use of Encro phones can be linked to Operation Venetic – UK law enforcement’s response to the take down of encrypted comms platform EncroChat.
Messages on the seized device linked Shepherd to the firearms and triggered further arrests and seizures across West Yorkshire, Merseyside and the North East.
Those arrested included Gerard Wignall, 33, from Merseyside, who was sentenced to 16 months in prison last month after his DNA was found on the rifle at Shepherd’s house.
The rifle could be traced back to a commercial burglary and was being looked after by Wignall before it was transported to West Yorkshire.
A further suspect, Carl O’Flaherty, 36, of Leysolme Terrace, Leeds, was arrested in June 2020 and pleaded guilty to multiple drugs and firearms charges in July.
Evidence proved that O’Flaherty helped source the firearm for Shepherd and took eventual payment for it.
A third man from Leeds, Shane Kameka, 40, also pleaded guilty to being involved in supplying firearms.
Kameka acted as a courier and transported the rifle from Merseyside. His sentence will be joined with another hearing where he is due to be sentenced for a separate arson offence.
Investigators believe they were assisted by Clinton Blakey, 36, of Dunstarn Drive, Leeds, who is currently wanted by the NCA after failing to appear at court after he was charged in August.
Shepherd was found guilty at Leeds Crown Court of four charges relating to possessing a firearm and Class A drugs after a three-day trial.
Both he and O’Flaherty are accused of further charges around drug supply and are due to stand trial in May 2022, after which, a sentence will decided.
NCA operations manager Nigel Coles said: “Shepherd went to great lengths to acquire dangerous firearms that were criminally sourced.
“We’re pleased that the evidence presented at court this week has secured a guilty verdict and hope further charges can be proven at a later date.
“The seriousness of gun crime cannot be underestimated. Had we not intercepted these weapons they would have been used to threaten and intimidate others with the potential loss of life.
“Criminals like Shepherd, O’Flaherty and Kameka perpetuate violent crime and are only motivated by financial gain. Reducing the availability of illegal firearms remains a priority for the NCA.
“We are still seeking one other man involved in this investigation.
“Anyone with information on Clinton Blakey’s whereabouts is urged to contact the National Crime Agency on 0370 496 7622 or contact Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.”