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FINGER LICKIN’ HOOD Thug convicted in plot to burgle Belfast KFC tycoon now doing bird for drug smuggling

Craig Murray is winging his way back to prison for ferrying cocaine, heroin, cannabis and amphetamine around the UK

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Craig Murray, who was part of a plot to burgle the home of KFC tycoon Michael Herbert, was convicted for drug smuggling

Craig Murray, who was part of a plot to burgle the home of KFC tycoon Michael Herbert, was convicted for drug smuggling

Craig Murray, who was part of a plot to burgle the home of KFC tycoon Michael Herbert, was convicted for drug smuggling

A serial criminal once convicted of plotting to burgle Belfast’s former KFC tycoon Michael Herbert is doing bird again for drug smuggling, we can reveal.

Craig Murray was jailed recently for eight and a half years for ferrying cocaine, heroin, cannabis and amphetamine around the UK for a north-west drugs gang.

A judge at Liverpool Crown Court described Murray as being part of a gang that “spread abject misery” to line their own pockets.

But it has also emerged the 41-year-old hatched his plan to build a major drugs empire while he was in prison serving time for a botched bid to rob multi-millionaire Herbert at his luxury south Belfast home.

Herbert sold off 146 KFCs two years ago but has maintained a huge property portfolio and remains one of Northern Ireland’s richest men, with an estimated £75 million fortune.

He also recently bought iconic leisure venue Barry’s Amusements and leased it to another firm who reopened last month under the name Curry’s Fun Park.

A gang from Liverpool had plotted to burgle Mr Herbert’s home of expensive jewellery – they’d even brought a diamond tester with them – but cops had been watching the Liverpool gang the whole time and they were caught at the scene dressed as if they were just out for a jog!

They arrived on the ferry into Dublin, with Murray driving his own car, and booked into the Beechlawn Hotel – close to the luxury mansion where Herbert lived with his wife Lesley.

The gang had already carried out a reconnaissance mission when Murray drove the same car with false number plates to Belfast on the ferry from Scotland.

Chillingly, a backpack belonging to the gang that was recovered was found to contain cable ties, knives, a screwdriver and a lump hammer.

While serving his sentence at HMP Kirkham in Lancashire for conspiracy to commit aggravated burglary on Herbert, he met fellow Scouser Ashley Moorcroft who has also been jailed as part of the recent drugs investigation.

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Michael Herbert and wife Lesley

Michael Herbert and wife Lesley

Michael Herbert and wife Lesley

 

Painter and decorator Murray, who also transported the gang’s drug cash around the country for a set wage, was caught with the rest of his gang by the EncroChat hack.

In the summer of 2020, drug enforcement agencies across Europe hacked the secret conversations of thousands of drug-dealing criminal gangs and handed the details to UK and Irish detectives.

A wave of cocaine, heroin and cannabis dealers are now sitting behind bars, regretting that they allowed themselves to become so reliant on high-tech software.

Using what they believed to be a safe encrypted phone chat service, Moorcroft became the gang’s boss and was known by the handle ‘RustyPalace’, while Murray apparently had 45 handles over the years but was widely known as ‘MicroBlue’.

Murray ferried the illicit product for Moorcroft in vehicles with specially constructed ‘hides’.

But they and a third gang member, Jonathan McKeown, aka ‘BushTern’ – who brokered deals and kept a ledger showing more than £1 million in cash changing hands – were all busted thanks to the EncroChat hack.

At a sentencing hearing this week, a prosecuting barrister said “senior figure” Moorcroft (33) was “involved in the importation of both Class A and B drugs from outside of the UK”.

He said Craig Murray was a “valued resource” who worked predominantly alongside Moorcroft to supply drugs and transport cash.

He added: “It appears that Mr Moorcroft and Mr Murray met whilst serving prison sentences at HMP Kirkham between 2014 and 2016.”

The EncroChat texts, recovered by French and Dutch authorities between March 20 and May 31, 2020, helped bring about the gang’s downfall, with evidence over £1m in drugs had changed hands.

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From left, drug dealers AShley Moorcroft, JOnathan McKeown and Craig Murray

From left, drug dealers AShley Moorcroft, JOnathan McKeown and Craig Murray

From left, drug dealers AShley Moorcroft, JOnathan McKeown and Craig Murray

 

Officers pinned the handle MicroBlue to Murray after he sent photos of a cottage in Wales where he stayed and a hot tub he had bought on eBay, both of which investigators were then able to link to him.

Moorcroft was arrested at his home in Halsnead, Wavertree, on May 6, 2021, and police seized £8,925 in cash, four Rolex watches, one Kenevo specialised electric bike and charger, and designer clothing and shoes. Merseyside Police said they also recovered an Audi.

McKeown was arrested when officers raided his home in Marlborough Road, Waterloo, that same day. They recovered £12,750 in cash.

Murray was twice arrested, firstly on June 17, 2020, when £36,710 was found at his Simonscroft, Netherton, home.

On May 6, 2021, officers struck again, when a further £14,000 in cash was seized from Murray.

All three men gave no-comment interviews to police, but later admitted conspiring to supply cocaine, cannabis and amphetamine. Moorcroft and McKeown also admitted conspiring to supply heroin.

McKeown was jailed for 20 years, Moorcroft for 19 and a half years, and Murray for eight and a half years.

Speaking after the sentencing, Detective Sergeant Dan Pilling of Merseyside Police said: “McKeown, Moorcroft and Murray clearly never suspected that police would uncover their messages and plans to sell and supply their vast quantities of drugs that could have endangered families and residents in our communities. They used the pandemic to enjoy a lavish lifestyle at the expense of vulnerable people across the country.”

Murray had been jailed for five years at Belfast Crown Court in 2014 for his part in one of the most audacious criminal plots ever attempted in Northern Ireland.

Two other men were also jailed for their part in the sophisticated but ultimately doomed criminal escapade.

The plan to raid multi-millionaire Mr Herbert’s detached house was foiled following a lengthy covert surveillance operation by the PSNI’s Organised Crime Branch.

A prosecution lawyer told Belfast Crown Court that the three-man gang had been “under observation for a substantial period of time’’ by undercover police.

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