British law enforcement — who had secretly infiltrated the secure app — were able to analyze Stewart’s fingerprints from the photo, proving that he was behind an account that had coordinated the sale of cocaine, heroin and other drugs.
“Carl Stewart was involved in supplying large amounts of class A and B drugs, but was caught out by his love of Stilton cheese,” Detective Inspector Lee Wilkinson, of Merseyside Police, said in a news release.
Stewart pleaded guilty on Friday at Liverpool Crown Court to transferring criminal property and conspiracy charges to supply drugs, police said. He was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.
Stewart is the latest suspect caught through the encrypted messaging app EncroChat. At its peak, about 60,000 people worldwide used EncroChat, including about 10,000 in Britain, with its intricate encryption capabilities promising protections for illegal activity. The app operated on a customized Android phone, and had a panic wipe that could clean out all the phone’s data by simply typing in a code.
But in July, Britain’s National Crime Agency announced that, with the help of other European law enforcement, it had “successfully penetrated” the app. Soon afterward, authorities arrested about 750 suspects around Britain and seized 77 firearms, 55 luxury cars, 73 high-end watches, more than two tons of drugs and roughly $68 million in cash.
The undertaking, known as “Operation Venetic,” has so far led Merseyside police to arrest more than 60 people mainly for drug trafficking or firearms offenses.
But police have a challenge with some accounts — namely how to identify the real person behind the username. One account police followed was called “Toffeeforce” — a reference to Everton, the Liverpool-based soccer club — which coordinated deals for cocaine, heroin, MDMA and ketamine.
Investigators zeroed in on one image shared by the user: the picture of a hand presenting a block of mature blue Stilton cheese at the store Marks & Spencer.
“His palm and fingerprints were analyzed from this picture and it was established they belonged to Stewart,” Wilkinson said in the news release.
British law enforcement have used this technique before. In 2010, Manchester police identified a man who stole rare watches by matching his palm print to an image of him holding the goods. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
In 2018, investigators in Bridgend, Wales, convicted 11 members of a drug gang thanks to a similar technique used to identify a man holding ecstasy pills in an image posted in a WhatsApp message.
“This should serve as a stark warning to anyone involved in this criminality that there are serious consequences,” Wilkinson said of Stewart’s prison sentence.