A drug dealer who trafficked three children including a teenage girl to use in a "county lines" crack and heroin selling ring has been jailed for 14 years after a landmark prosecution.
Birmingham-based Zakaria Mohammed, 21, recruited the vulnerable youngsters to extend his drugs network to Lincoln, but was caught after two missing 15-year-old boys were found in a squalid and freezing flat in January.
Mohammed (pictured), from Trinity Road, Aston, is thought to be the first drug dealer convicted in Britain for breaching the Modern Slavery Act by trafficking children. One of his victims was a 14-year-old girl.
County lines gangs recruit children from cities and send them to provincial towns to sell drugs.
Police said Mohammed, who admitted four counts of possessing drugs with intent to supply and five counts of human trafficking, raked in £500 a day in profit by organising the sale of crack cocaine and heroin from premises in Lincoln, which were raided on January 25.
Although no drugs were found at the property in Yarborough Road, police recovered knives and cash, leading them to believe it was being used as a base to supply around 100 local addicts.
A surveillance operation identified a Seat Leon registered to Mohammed making regular trips from Birmingham, often accompanied by teenagers, to an address in Foster Street, Lincoln.
West Midlands Police seized the vehicle for having no insurance in February, discovering a phone used to run the drugs line - known as "Castro" - and clothing including school trousers and a school tie belonging to a missing child from Birmingham.
A drink bottle and a Ribena carton recovered from the Seat returned a DNA match to two other 15-year-old boys who had disappeared from the city.
Officers from Lincolnshire Police recorded video evidence of children passing drugs to punters - often completing deals every 10 or 15 minutes - and swooped on the flat in Foster Street on February 12.
Three 15-year-old boys, all reported as missing from Birmingham, were found inside the one-bed flat with two known class A drug users.
A total of 25 wraps of heroin and crack cocaine were recovered, plus cash and two so-called zombie knives.
Mohammed pleaded guilty after officers also recovered CCTV from Birmingham New Street station, showing him buying train tickets for two children to travel to Lincoln.
Both youngsters - a boy aged 15 and a 14-year-old girl who had been reported missing - were found when officers from Lincolnshire and West Midlands Police raided a property in Hermit Street, Lincoln, on April 6.
Passing sentence at Birmingham Crown Court, Judge Nicholas Webb, said: "The fact is the children were being taken away for days or weeks, exposed to potential danger in a squalid environment."
Addressing Mohammed, sat in the court dock in a grey tracksuit, on Thursday the judge added: "Your role was significant - you were a trusted lieutenant, a trusted driver who drove or took them (the children) by train.
"Others, more senior, would liaise with the children and arrange for you to meet them.
"You were told where to go and what to do and you were doing it to pay off a (drugs) debt.
"But your role was pivotal. Somebody had to be trusted to get the children and the drugs for supply in place, and that person was you."
Mohammed, he added, had been part of a "lucrative enterprise" which had seen the children exploited, living in "squalid conditions" and away from their families, often out of contact, for lengthy periods.
Acknowledging there was no evidence the children were forced or threatened by Mohammed, Judge Webb added: "Your contribution was to exploit their vulnerability."
Afterwards, Detective Constable Max Gebhard, of West Midlands Police, said: "The 'Castro' drugs line number was changed four times in a bid to avoid detection by the police.
"Each time a mass text message would be sent out to its scores of users alerting them to the new number on which to place orders - and when those orders came in Mohammed would contact the children to fulfil the deals.
"This is a hugely significant conviction for West Midlands Police and law enforcement as a whole across the UK.
"It shows that we can go after county lines offenders not just for drug supply but also under trafficking legislation due to them exploiting children."
TRAFFICKED CHILDREN USED AS DRUG MULES LURED WITH 'FALSE PROMISES'
Detectives who brought Zakaria Mohammed to justice say they found no evidence that the children he trafficked and exploited had shared in his profits.
Senior investigating officer, Detective Inspector Tom Hadley, suspects that more than three children were exploited by the dealer after they were "groomed" with false promises of money.
At Birmingham Crown Court on Thursday, a judge handed Mohammed a 14-year sentence after the former business management student, 21, admitted four drugs conspiracy charges, and five Modern Slavery Act offences.
It is the first time modern slavery legislation has been employed to bring a successful prosecution for the exploitation and trafficking of children who have been used to deal drugs.
Det Insp Hadley said: "In reality, we found three children inside a one-bed flat alongside two Class A drug users surrounded by used syringes.
"The place was filthy, cold and there was no food in the kitchen. The children looked drawn, tired and hungry
"They were not wearing new trainers or designer clothes... they didn't have new phones or gadgets. They were not making money - they were having their childhood stolen from them by Mohammed who considered them expendable 'workhorses'.
"That's the reality for children that are lured into this world through false promises."
Superintendent Richard Agar, West Midlands Police's lead for County Lines inquiries, said of the child victims: "They have gone through a significant ordeal because at 14 or 15 years old they are vulnerable.
"When we did enforcement activity they were found in a flat that was dishevelled, it was unhygienic, it was covered in drugs paraphernalia. There was no heating in the flat and there was no food.
"The children themselves appeared to be disorientated, they were dishevelled themselves. It was unclear when they had last eaten.
"Zakaria Mohammed, the person who put all this together, was quite cynical in his activities. He conducted a business and he saw the children as a commodity to extend his own business.
"At an early stage in the investigation we recognised that these children were victims, that they were being exploited.
"We are working really closely with their parents, with children's services to make sure they are getting the support that they need."
Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) West Midlands Police / PA Wire.