A talented youth footballer got caught up with an organised crime group responsible for supplying cocaine worth millions.

Benjamin Hepburn, a former Didcot Town player who as a youth played for Fulham, fell on hard times during the first lockdown after he was forced to shut his newly-opened Cowley Road cocktail bar.

The 35-year-old, who has previously done time for growing cannabis and knifing a student in a drug deal gone awry, was recruited to pass on dirty cash from couriers responsible for delivering wholesale blocks of cocaine and collecting the money and the crime gang’s middle management.

The latest in a string of men to be jailed for their involvement in the gang, Hepburn was provided with a special ‘EncroChat’ mobile phone.

The device used a communications network that crooks believed to be un-hackable until French police cracked the phone company’s servers in 2020.

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Using the Encro username ‘Truegin’, he spoke to his boss in the chain – friend Kayne Byrne – and subordinate, courier Paul Jones, about arrangements to pick up cash totaling tens of thousands of pounds.

He also put Byrne in touch with at least one potential customer for the gang’s cocaine.

His involvement lasted around a month in May and June 2020.

An extensive police surveillance operation showed Hepburn meeting with Byrne and Jones, as well as others involved in the organised crime group.

Oxford Mail: Benjamin Hepburn's custody image Picture: Thames Valley PoliceBenjamin Hepburn's custody image Picture: Thames Valley Police (Image: Thames Valley Police)

Prosecuting, Lisa Goddard told Oxford Crown Court on Wednesday (September 13) that Hepburn was suspected of having arranged the delivery of a cash safe to safe houses used by the organisation.

It was on the driveway to one of these safe houses – two flats in the same building in Bicester Road, Kidlington – that the defendant was arrested in a police swoop on June 17, 2020.

Hepburn had the keys to one of the flats on him.

Inside the apartment, police found 340g of cannabis, £5,409 in cash, and wrappings thought to have come from five 1kg vacuum-packed blocks of cocaine.

Inside the other flat, the police found Byrne, who awaits sentencing, as well as a large safe, three money-counting machines, equipment used to vacuum seal packages and more than £70,000 in cash.

The two flats were described as being the ‘heart’ of the organised crime group’s ‘logistics hub’.

Oxford Mail: The gang was using 'safe flats' in a property in Bicester Road, Kidlington Picture: GOOGLEThe gang was using 'safe flats' in a property in Bicester Road, Kidlington Picture: GOOGLE (Image: Google)

Hepburn, formerly of Bayswater Road, Oxford, pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to conspiracy to supply class A drugs and conspiracy to acquire criminal property.

Jailing him for seven years and two months on Wednesday, Judge Michael Gledhill KC told the defendant: “You are a man of two different characters.

"On the one hand you’re a good family man. You are perfectly capable of earning an honest living and working hard.

"I have read your references. I know about your family circumstances.

“But on the other hand, for a month or so in 2020, when times were hard in your particular case for the reasons I have read about, you decided to turn to your old ways – dealing in drugs.”

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In mitigation, Hepburn's barrister said the Barton man was extremely remorseful and had taken steps since being remanded in prison to undertake rehabilitation courses to ensure he left prison a ‘changed person’.

The recent birth of his daughter had sounded a ‘loud alarm call in directing him down the right path’ and he was supported by a number of character references speaking of his ‘compassion’ and ‘commitment to his family’.