In July 2012, Newbury resident Grant Wooldridge was found dead on a sofa by his girlfriend Laura Bicknell, one day after collapsing at the Ness Festival in Bath.
Around the same time, Swindon Advertiser reporter Josh Layton (pictured, credit: Newsquest) was contacted by police detectives looking to bust the UK’s largest illegal highs racket.
An inquest into Wooldridge’s death heard how he was seen taking pills shortly before collapsing. The 46-year-old had suffered seizures triggered from an overdose of illegal stimulant fluoromethamphetamine, a post-mortem concluded, with evidence of Class B drug methedrone also found in his system.
Police reports linked the drugs to ‘legal highs’ supplier Wide Mouth Frogs, the same website believed to be responsible for a spike in drugs-related admissions at the Great Western Hospital between August 2011 and March 2012.
Less than three years later, Layton, 37, now working freelance, would give evidence at Bolton Crown Court that would help jail seven WMF employees and end the multi-million pound drugs business.
Former Chester City Football Club director Paula White, who masterminded the operation, made £3.6m selling over 90,000 products at Drake Mill in Farnborough to 18,500 registered customers worldwide – 16,000 in the UK and 2,500 based overseas.
White was jailed for nine years for conspiracy to supply Class B drugs on Friday 5 June after police raided her £1m home in Ellesmere Park, Eccles, in May 2013. Six co-conspirators were also sentenced by the court.
Asked about his role in exposing the gang, Layton, who was named Regional Press Awards weekly reporter of the year in 2007 for his work on Croydon gangs, told Press Gazette he first heard of WMF at a “car park in Swindon” in early 2012.
“I was going down there usually every Thursday evening just to meet the people who were using the soup run,” he said.
“I did various stories on it, but one of the things they mentioned was that people in the town who were addicted to drink and drugs were dying from taking legal highs, or so-called ‘legal highs’.
“They pinpointed one website in particular, Wide Mouth Frogs. It turned out that this website was selling substances which were not legal at all.
“I was saying ‘why do people take them?’ and they would say that these substances were highly addictive and more potent than crack or heroin. And these were people who were hardened drug [users] saying that this stuff is really dangerous to take, so I immediately thought that this was something that I wanted to check out.”
At the time, Swindon had become a regional hotspot for legal high-related hospital admissions.
Layton said that, one week after visiting the soup run, he ordered three products linked to deaths in the local area from the website. Purchasing the drugs was simple: “That was the astonishing thing about it, really. I ordered them under my own name, on my own credit card.”
After analysis by drug identification service TICTAC Communications it was revealed that the products contained Class B substance 4-methylethcathinone (4-MEC). Layton wrote a front page report with an accompanying double-page spread in the Advertiser on his findings.
Asked about the initial response to his articles, Layton said: “The authorities really did stand up and take notice, and they were quite supportive of the work I was doing as well. You don’t always see that in journalism.
“There were presentation programmes and I think they did some work in schools… Swindon was one of the places in the country which led the way in identifying legal highs and the admissions to hospital and also for targeting people supplying the substances as well.
“The local MP Robert Buckland picked up the case. He’s a barrister by trade and I think he had some input in the current proposal in the Queen’s Speech about psychoactive substances.”
But how did Layton get involved in the trial?
“It was the detectives that approached me through the newspaper. That was a good three-four months after the first article in March 2012, maybe even longer.
“After the first article came out recording methods got better and also I think coroners… were quite hot on it. There were actually confirmed deaths after the article came out, so it was in the news the whole time. The detectives were doing their separate investigation but must have come across my article in the meantime.”
He said he “only really played a small part” in the trial, adding that “my evidence only lasted five minutes” in court proceedings that “went on for weeks and weeks”.
“The police wanted evidence to prove that they [WMF] knew what they were doing was illegal because one of the excuses they gave was that they didn’t know that these substances they were shipping all over England and the world were actually illegal,” he said.
“I hadn’t got through to a human being but I’d left messages with Wide Mouth Frogs asking for a comment on the fact that I’d analysed substances – one contained a Class B substance. Not only that but we had run three articles after that which had gone online afterwards about how these illegal substances were up on their website, all searchable on Google.”
Layton spoke about the scale of the drugs operation, said to have 18,500 registered customers by North West Regional Organised Crime Unit (Titan) detective superintendent Jason Hudson.
He said: “The website was like the Argos of supplying so-called legal highs. It was very professionally put together, a very slick enterprise. It doesn’t surprise me at all.
“What was happening at Swindon was that people were ordering products from this website and they were dealing them to people out on the streets, so the actual supply probably went even bigger.”
He said his experience as a witness was “a bit of an eye opener”, but a “positive experience” nonetheless.
He added: “I was just going to say to other journalists, you don’t often get to see behind the scenes because you’re often sitting inside a press box, but it did make me realise what a sterling effort the volunteers from the witness service and the detectives do in guiding witnesses through the [legal] process.
“I’d hope that to everybody who played a role in the justice system, as a victim not just as a witness, got the same support that I got when I went into the box to give evidence.”
According to Layton, there have been marked improvements in tackling legal highs in Swindon as a result of press and police campaigns.
“What is a good is there is a lot more awareness now. There’s definitely better recording and better knowledge with the authorities and with the hospital, with the coroners as well. So at least they can identify these drugs… that’s definitely better,” he said.
“There’s more information in the public as well about the dangers – these are all positive steps.”
Asked if, since leaving the Advertiser, he found it more difficult to pursue investigations, Layton said: “It is tough to do investigative journalism, especially freelance. But it is investigations like this which remind me how important a role investigative journalism can play in the public interest and how it can assist the police and prosecutors in breaking criminal enterprises. There’s a valuable role it can still play in society.”
Despite regional newspapers facing pressures from staff cuts, Layton said he was “privileged” to work at publications that supported investigative reporting and that he has continued “to have good relations” with them.