Only the eyes are visible above the wad of cash. Across his face is a fan of £5 notes, held in his left palm.

His right hand flashes a gesture. Forefinger, little finger and thumb poking out from his fist. It could be a 70s rocker’s hand signal – but it’s not.

“I thought it looked cool,” Pravin Maheswaran later told an expert on County Lines drug gangs.

“It was just cool.

“It wasn’t even my money.

“I looked like a homeless person wearing a worn-out tracksuit. I hadn’t showered for two weeks.”


Pravin Maheswaran, posing with cash Picture: CPS

Pravin Maheswaran, posing with cash Picture: CPS


The photograph was found on the then 17-year-old’s phone by police digital specialists. The man who took it was just a few years older; Tyrone Fielding, reported missing from his supported living block barely a fortnight earlier.

Within 12 months, the man who took the photograph was dead – and the teenager posing for the camera had been convicted of trafficking him from London to Oxford to sell drugs.

This is the story of how it happened.


Tyrone Fielding had his own difficulties. He suffered from epilepsy and learning disabilities.

Housed in supported accommodation in Croydon, south London, he was reported missing to the Metropolitan Police on October 1, 2020, by social workers.

The Met claimed there was little they could do; Tyrone was an adult and there was no court-imposed care order limiting where he could go.

He’d gone, as it turned out, to Oxford. He would later tell police he’d met a man he knew as ‘Davy’ through a mutual friend – ‘John’ – in Lewisham and was told his family would be stabbed if he didn’t run drugs for him. ‘Davy’ offered to pay him £800 and give him some free cannabis in exchange for two weeks’ work.

On October 21, Tyrone Fielding called 999. Catching his breath as he walked, he told the police operator that he’d been running drugs for someone.

“I’ve been assaulted by them because I haven’t done what they’ve said. I’m fed up with them,” he said.

“I’ve been punched in my face five, six times. I just want to be out of the whole of here.

“I’m just fed up of it.”

PC Charlotte Laxton was one of the officers who met him outside the Manzil Way health centre.

She told Oxford Crown Court he was ‘shaken up, very quiet and he kept repeating that he didn’t want to be here, he didn’t want to be in Oxford’.

Mr Fielding, who has since died, described twice being punched by the ‘Davy’ when, in a cannabis-induced fug, he believed the older man had lost the class A drugs they were selling.

He later told police they’d travelled back to London together - including on the Oxford Tube coach service - which the prosecution claimed was to re-stock on drugs.


Pravin Maheswaran and Tyrone Fielding said they had dealt drugs based from a property in Magdalen Road, Oxford

Pravin Maheswaran and Tyrone Fielding said they had dealt drugs based from a property in Magdalen Road, Oxford


From grammar school to a life of crime

A grammar school boy, Pravin Maheswaran’s life unravelled in his mid-teens. He went to live with an uncle and later taken into care after social services stepped in after allegations of physical abuse at home.

The teenager was excluded from school in early 2018 and was enrolled in a pupil referral unit. By October 2018 he was placed in secure accommodation.

The drug gangs pounced after he was kicked out of school. He was taken to a ‘drug house’ and shown how to ‘plug’ drugs in his bottom, then regularly picked up from care placements and driven to the West Country to deal drugs.

Between 2019 and 2020, four different police forces and councils referred him to the Home Office as a potential victim of modern slavery.

He was found in Portsmouth in 2019 and referred to the authorities by Redbridge Council in Greater London. Later that month, Sussex Police found him in a ‘cuckooed’ drug addict’s property with older men from the capital.

On October 31, 2019, Avon and Somerset Police made a referral to the Home Office. The previous year – when he was just 15 – he was seen dealing drugs in Weston-super-Mare then stopped a number of times in the area in 2019.

The following March, he was found in Llanelli, south Wales, apparently attempting to place a ‘package’ in his bottom.

This week, Oxford Crown Court was told Maheswaran returned to London after spending six months on remand in 2020.

He enrolled in college and had a ‘plan’ in his head that he would not get drawn back into a life of crime. “It wasn’t long til the gangs found me,” he told an expert witness.

Maheswaran claimed he’d been told by the older gangsters for whom he’d run drugs previously that he was in debt and they needed their money back.

That, he said, was how he ended up in Oxford in October 2020 – when police raided a house in Magdalen Road and discovered Maheswaran with 66 wraps of heroin and crack cocaine in his bottom and £860 cash on him.

He’d worked alongside Tyrone Fielding, he said. Not as his exploiter, although as he’d been sent to Oxford ‘loads’ he knew how to get things like train tickets.

Shortly after arriving at one of their bases a group of gun-toting men in masks stormed the property and robbed him of £1,000 cash and between £500 and £1,000-worth of drug. He was pistol whipped in the head twice.

Drug gang expert Dr Grace Robinson said in a report prepared for the appeal that staged robberies were a ‘very common tactic’ among County Lines networks. Although there was no evidence to suggest that was what happened to Maheswaran, the robberies ‘continue the victim’s situation of debt bondage and ensure that they comply with the orders of the network’.

There was a ‘code of conduct’ within organised crime networks like the London County Lines gangs, Dr Robinson said. If you talk to the authorities, you faced violent reprisals. Maheswaran himself had had his leg smashed with a crowbar, his tooth broken and had seen gangsters with guns and laughing about ‘shooting people outside their mum’s house’.


Pravin Maheswaran outside Oxford Crown Court

Pravin Maheswaran outside Oxford Crown Court



In the summer, Maheswaran was found guilty by a district judge at Oxford Magistrates’ Court of dealing drugs and possession of criminally-acquired cash in October 2020 and organising the forced labour of Tyrone Fielding.

Appealing those convictions to the crown court, the Londoner’s defence was the same: he didn’t traffic Mr Fielding and he was a slave himself.

The Crown were sceptical. Prosecutor Helena Duong told Recorder John Hardy QC and his two magistrates as she opened the case: “The issue in this case is whether this appellant benefits from the defence under section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act.

“He says he was both exploited and threatened by adult men who were higher up the chain from him. The prosecution say in this case that he had effectively graduated in this chain of the supplying of drugs and had gone from once being an exploitee to become the exploiter.

“Mr Maheswaran was undoubtedly young and in fact younger than the complainant in this case it may well be in the past he had his own vulnerabilities and his own difficulties.

“[It may be] there were some other older and more experienced people in the chain who he was answerable to.

“In this case the prosecution say that he had himself become involved in the exploitation of another young, vulnerable person and we say he was not involved in the supply of drugs as a direct consequence of his exploitation. He had chosen to involve himself in the supply of drugs.”

Dr Robinson, a University of Nottingham academic, was clear in her evidence: Maheswaran was a victim of modern slavery and criminal exploitation when he was running drugs in Oxford last year.

Her view did not change when prosecutor Helena Duong told her the teen had asked to return to London, where he’d previously been threatened, when he was released from prison earlier in 2020.

“Victims can still be a victim of exploitation and exploit others at the same time,” she said.

A win – of sorts

The judge and magistrates came down against Maheswaran – in part – deciding he was not a slave in October 2020 but also ruling that he had not forced Mr Fielding into working for him.

Delivering the judgement, Recorder Hardy said: “On any view this is a very sad case. Leave aside Tyrone Fielding, whose short life was ended probably as a result of his epileptic condition, this appellant was and we hope one day may be again a young man with a good future. An intelligent pupil at a grammar school whose father behaved badly to his whole family, which caused ruptions and caused him to go into care.

“At or about the same time, very sadly he was excluded from school. This cut off at one stroke the twin avenues of progress for a young person’s life, namely family and education, leaving him vulnerable to the groups that prey upon young people and lure them into their unlawful ways of life.

“We are entirely satisfied that the appellant was indeed the victim of modern slavery and remained so for some period of time.

“The issue, however, so far as [the drug dealing and dirty cash charges] in this appeal is concerned is whether the statutory defence under section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 can avail him of his admitted conduct.


Oxford Crown Court file image Picture: ED NIX

Oxford Crown Court file image Picture: ED NIX


“Put another way, have the crown made us sure that he didn’t commit these acts as a direct consequence of his being or his having been a victim of slavery?

“We note...that despite the fact that he was 17-and-three-quarters years old at this period of time he was savvy, if I may use that expression, in the sense of being street-wise.

“Our conclusion is that he had at the relevant time a sense of personal autonomy. That doesn’t mean that he was unsusceptible to malign influence, but he had a freedom of choice and we conclude by a majority that his appeal must fail on charges one, three and four.”

Turning to the modern slavery charges, the judge said: “Whatever our suspicions are concerning the relationship between Tyrone Fielding and the appellant, we note that Mr Fielding irrespective of his vulnerability and his medical condition entered voluntarily into an arrangement by which he travelled with a man whose name appeared in his telephone address book as ‘John Mate’.

“While we form the view that Mr Fielding was the junior partner in this enterprise we cannot be sure that he was enslaved into that role.”

The convictions on the trafficking charges were quashed.

Community order

Taking into account his youth and lesser role in the pecking order, Recorder Hardy sentenced Maheswaran to a two year community order with 100 hours of unpaid work and 24 rehabilitation activity requirement days.

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