Little of note happens in the sleepy, picture-postcard village of Llanrug in Wales. But when a flashy "stand-out" Range Rover pulled up at The Glyntwrog Inn on a hazy Wednesday afternoon in spring of last year, locals drinking their pints outside knew this day would be unlike any other. From the car emerged a distinctive, electric-pink-haired woman and two men – one noticeably older, the other a lot younger.
The trio – Leanne Duffin, 31; her father Brian, 66; and their housemate, 19-year-old Jordan Whittle – sat at a table in the quaint country pub in the depths of north-west Wales and ordered lunch. But before their food could make it out of the kitchen, undercover police officers walked in and handcuffed all three. They were arrested for conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs.
"Leanne was gutted because the food in that pub was quite expensive, and she had literally just ordered it and we came along and arrested her," says Danielle Lilley, detective constable at Lancashire Police. "She was saying: 'I can’t believe it, I've just paid for food and now we’re not even going to get to eat it.' It caused a bit of a sting in the pub. The locals were all open-mouthed. They were approaching us afterwards, saying they knew something was up with them. One of the locals was an off-duty police officer, and even he said it was the most exciting thing that's ever happened round there."
The arrests might have amused the locals and scuppered Duffin's dinner plans, but they were a huge result for Lilley and her team. Apart from being "quite good fun", it was the culmination of more than a year of covert operations. As well as running a well-known tanning salon, Duffin – it transpired – was the head of one of the biggest drug dealing syndicates in the recent history of Chorley, a Lancashire market town less than an hour's drive from Manchester.
Watch: The Dangers of Being a Cocaine Dealer
Police first received intelligence on the cocaine and weed racket operating across Preston, Chorley, Leyland and other parts of the Lancashire borough of South Ribble in early 2016, and a protracted investigation was undertaken to try to catch the group.
"Information was coming in from going out and speaking to local people, and we developed it from there," explains Detective Sergeant Keith Duckworth from the intelligence unit at Chorley Police. "We were getting snippets, and then there was enough weight to it to start the covert operation, with surveillance watching the group's movements."
Although the evidence was stacking up and reports were acted upon, they initially "never came to fruition", and Duffin's crew managed to avoid getting caught. Police believe the gang was getting to the stage where they thought they were "untouchable".
With Duffin at the helm, the ring continued to supply drugs to local users for many months while being watched by police. "This is one of the first [drug dealing cases] where we've had a daughter running the show with her dad on board as well," says Duckworth. "That is unusual. Telephony showed that Leanne was definitely the one who was in control. It’s more common for a male to be leading."
Lilley also says it's the first time she's come across a woman leading an organized crime group, and that nothing came out of the investigation to suggest an onward chain or pressure from above. "The experience I've had is that the person who's put in a leading role is usually a male," she explains. "Sometimes there’s a girlfriend involved, but she’s certainly not leading. This is a case of a female being a leader and directing those below her, definitely. I can’t explain why people would want to do that [deal] for her. She must be a good saleswoman to get people on board and sell jail time to them."
Duffin's salon, the neon pink and green-fronted Cosmopolitan in Leyland, was a key element in creating that successful businesswoman image – but, according to police, it was little more than a front to launder money. Although comments on a Chorley Police Facebook post featuring Duffin's mug shot – which is one of the page’s most shared and commented upon images – suggest the salon should have been named "Tan Lines", no evidence was found to suggest dealing was taking place there.
"It was where the money was cleaned up," says Lilley. "There were genuine customers of that business. We found the books as part of the search, and for a time the takings were being recorded, but they were meagre. The levels of income Leanne was claiming the tanning business was taking couldn't be proved by her, so it would appear that any money she's got is from drugs rather than from Cosmopolitan."
While writing this article I tried to contact Leanne for an interview multiple times via two solicitors and a police contact, but received no answer.
Police say they cannot be certain about how long Duffin had been supplying drugs, but they don't think the racket was something that just got set up in 2016. Over the 15-month period of the covert operation, it's estimated the group sold about 4 kg of cocaine—which has a street value of around £200,000 ($264,000 USD)—and 6 kg of cannabis, worth about £60,000 ($79,000 USD).
Duffin's "very substantial" assets – including her black Range Rover Sport – have been seized and will be discussed at a Proceeds of Crime Act hearing on the 30th of March, 2018. "There's no doubt in my mind that the car was bought with drug money," says Lilley.
Police also believe it would have been difficult for Cosmopolitan's customers not to have known about the salon's association with drug dealing, because—they say—many people in the area knew what was going on. But not everyone was aware of the business's links to crime. Employees of the neighboring Rowlands Pharmacy knew of Duffin, but had no idea what was going on next door. "She came in the odd time, she was polite enough," one staff member says. "She always seemed polite to me."
Some Cosmopolitan customers were more shocked that they’d been sold sun bed minutes they now can't use because the business was closed when Duffin was arrested. "I guess I won’t be getting my money back," one customer – who had bought a course of sun bed sessions – says. "I can’t believe what she was up to. I never suspected a thing like that. I only used her shop because she had collagen therapy beds, which was the only cure for my psoriasis. The shop was a bit scruffy, with no lock on door, but Leanne was friendly. Quite eccentric. Had her own style."
It was her conspicuous image that police believe could have played a part in her downfall, making it impossible for her to go under the radar, especially in a small area where everyone knows each other and people talk. "Her appearance and reputation went before her," Lilley explains. "She’s out there. She's got a unique sense of style, wearing hot pants and crop-tops. You could see her from a mile off – she’s heavily tattooed... and the bright pink hair, bright white hair, the bubble-gum hair, always changing her appearance.
"She was very gregarious and extroverted. You can tell by the number of comments she generated on Facebook how many people knew about her. Her appearance and the way she is on social media can attract both positive and negative attention."
But when it came down to it, Duffin appeared to be just a regular woman, not the tough gang kingpin she has been hyped up to be by the tabloid press since her arrest. "When you speak to Leanne, she's just down to earth," says Lilley. "I was surprised about that. I expected her to be really wild and out there and loud, but actually she’s personable, chatty, she doesn’t think she’s above anyone. She’s just a normal person, really."
Perhaps it was Duffin's charisma that helped her to get people to work under her in the syndicate. Besides her father and Whittle – who police say didn't have a family and likely felt a sense of belonging in the gang – the group also included Geri Treadwell, 51, of Coppull, and Kevin Hewitt, 51, of Adlington. Whittle and Treadwell played the role of deliverymen, dropping off gear to customers and picking up the money, while Hewitt provided the safe house.
A search of that safe house in September of 2016 uncovered a locked suitcase, which contained a third of a kilo of the cutting agent benzocaine, a small amount of cocaine, cannabis, sim cards, mobile phone handsets and weighing scales. Forensics linked the suitcase to Duffin and her father, while a cheap throwaway Nokia—which contained texts featuring their trademark deal of one gram of coke for £40 ($52 USD), three for £100 ($132 USD) or nine for £200 ($264 USD)—was also linked to the group.
It would be another eight months before the successful strike day, when a mobile seized from Duffin used the same number as the burner phone found at the safe house – the same number that had been live at the start of the investigation.
On the day of the arrests in May of 2017, police had arrived at Duffin’s home address in Standish, Greater Manchester to find she wasn't there. They managed to locate her in Wales, where – as part of the trappings of her lifestyle – she had bought a caravan on a luxury five-star estate.
The park, Brynteg Holiday Homes, is promoted on its website as "nestled in the foothills of Snowdonia […] Leave the stresses of everyday life at home and enjoy your retreat […] Close enough for a spontaneous weekend break, yet far enough away to relax and unwind". Just not far enough, it turns out, to escape an investigative police unit. "Leanne said she couldn't believe we'd followed her all the way to Wales," says Lilley.
But there was no fight: Duffin went quietly, and even had a "girly chat" with officers on the long journey back to Lancashire. "We chatted about her life," says Lilley. "She was telling me about her dancing, because she’d previously been a dancer. She told me who she was going out with – you know, all those kinds of girly chats, clothes, etc. She told me about some relationship problems she’d had with a long-term boyfriend. She’d got with a lad and can’t seem to break away from him, and it probably isn’t the best of relationships, but they love each other. It was that sort of stuff – they were all things you’d hear from a hundred other girls."
Duffin, who police described as a "daddy’s girl," was also concerned and distressed about her father's arrest. "Her dad is everything to her," says Lilley. "She was so upset about him being arrested. She was saying, 'Please look after him, he’s got health problems, please can you get his medication, please make sure he's OK.'"
Duffin was remanded in custody from that day and was sentenced to eight years in prison. She will be eligible for parole in November of 2021. Her father was jailed for six years, and Whittle for three years and eight months. Treadwell was sentenced to four years and Hewitt got 12 months.
"You can’t escape the attention forever," says Lilley. "There will come a point where you get found out, and the police do actively look to put people who deal drugs in prison."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.