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How One Phone Toppled a British Family's Prison-Run Drug Ring

The group, including three generations of one family, ended up with 72 years of prison time among them as a result.
July 2, 2016, 2:30pm

Joe Mitchell, on his way back to prison. Photo courtesy of South Yorkshire Police.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

It's hard to stop when you're onto a good thing. Most people can never seem to eat just one hot and salty chip from inside a newspaper-covered cone. Once that friend of yours who drags themselves out of bed to train for the half-marathon starts to really get into exercise, the ensuing endorphin rush triggers a positive feeling that makes them want to keep running. By now it's common knowledge that when we get into the habit of following certain patterns, we stick with them as long as they're rewarding. And we can want to kick off what psychologists call "stimulus-response behaviors," and the dopamine they can shoot through our bodies, whether or not what we're doing is self-destructive.


Enter Joe Mitchell, and his devotion to the drug game. A group made up of him, members of three generations of his family and their boyfriends, siblings, and possibly two rival dealers were all collectively sentenced on Friday to 72 years in prison for continuing to run a drug ring led by Joe—from inside prison. It would have seemed, to anyone on the outside without much knowledge of recidivism or how much crime still goes on in prison, that being arrested and held on remand in prison under the suspicion of selling drugs would have stopped Mitchell selling more drugs. Not so.

"The operation involved substantial profits and Joe Mitchell boasted of £10,000 profits in the three months he was in custody," said Judge Simon Lawler, speaking in Sheffield Crown Court. "It was a family-based business, including, unhappily, three generations, partners, and other members who were paid by and trusted by the dominant force which was Joe Mitchell. He ran it even from custody with a culture of fear and reputation."

Prison's meant to be a place of rehabilitation, in the eyes of most lawmakers, where people go to learn from their mistakes and magically come out on the other side, ready to stride back confidently into wider society. The "devastating impact" of synthetic cannabis use in some of the UK's prisons would perhaps offer an alternative version of that idyll, but hasn't stopped a focus on punishment (and a bit of rehabilitation) prevailing in this country's justice system.


Still, it may have come as a bit of a surprise for the South Yorkshire Police to learn that 29-year-old Joe wasn't about to be held back by something as simple as a temporary home in custody, keeping his drug network going over the phone while held on remand. After his own mobile was confiscated, he reportedly got another in prison, making hundreds of drug-related calls to his family—calls that were monitored by the police. They say they listened in to pinpoint who else was involved in the drugs sales, before swooping.

Joe's now looking at a 15-year sentence, as alleged ringleader of an operation the tabloids have branded the case of the real-life Eastenders Mitchell family. The group's charges range from conspiracy to supply Class As and B to firearm possession and ketamine production, and the story seemed fit for a writer's room.

"This has been a complicated and lengthy investigation into multiple members of organized criminal groups in the Parson Cross area of Sheffield," said James Axe, an acting detective inspector who looked after the case, according to South Yorkshire Police. "This group, while they have admitted their roles in drugs and firearms offenses, actively sought to profit from their criminality—purchasing expensive items in an attempt to disguise their profits so this money couldn't be seized or recovered by officers."

Vanessa Fitton, Jayne Mitchell, and Carol Mitchell. Photos courtesy of South Yorkshire Police

Basically, Joe enlisted the help of his 24-year-old sister Kayley Mitchell, his 49-year-old mom Jayne Mitchell, his 69-year-old grandmother Carol Mitchell, his girlfriend Vanessa Fitton, her brother Frankie Fitton, and his sister Natasha's boyfriend, Levi Sendel.

Bradley and Connor Murphy, 24-year-old twin brothers who reportedly ran rival dealing networks, have also been convicted in the case, alongside 23-year-old Nathan Lang and 28-year-old Rhyan Howden. Owen Thorpe is reportedly due to be sentenced later on charges of conspiracy to supply cocaine, heroin, and cannabis. Based on information from the sentencing in court, the group were mostly moving heroin, coke, and cannabis, using Nana Mitchell as a "banker" while storing the drugs and weapons at the Mitchell family home.

In the end, the judge handed down harsh sentences to make an example of those convicted, giving everyone but Joe's girlfriend Vanessa, his sister Kayley, and his nan Carol at least five years of prison time. It's given the police force and its press release team ample opportunity to hammer home a point about why dealing drugs is illegal and, in the views of the justice system, worth "hefty jail terms." Joe's received the longest sentence of anyone caught by the police investigation—and he'll never quite know what would have happened if he'd somehow fought his psychological instincts and shaken off his old drug-slinging habit.