A PENNILESS teen who lived alone in “Dickensian” conditions turned to drug dealing in order to put food in the fridge, a court heard.
Ryan Wheeler’s lawyer said the then 17-year-old had fallen through the net. He was living by himself in a freezing flat on Whitehead Street after his dad moved out. The electricity had been switched off as he could not pay the meter and his living conditions were so bad he developed a skin complaint.
In desperation he turned to the County Lines drug dealers. He was, in the words of one Swindon judge, ripe for exploitation.
This week, Wheeler was one of a dozen low-level dealers to find themselves in the dock after they were snared in an undercover police operation. Op Jetway saw five police spies pose as addicts so they could gather intelligence on drugs networks operating in Swindon.
Swindon Crown Court heard how an undercover police officer named only as “Rob” called a drugs line on June 20 last year and placed an order for three wraps of heroin and three of crack cocaine.
He was directed to the McDonald’s restaurant on Canal Walk in the town centre and met there by push bike-riding Wheeler.
The boy directed Rob to the nearby multi-storey car park, where he asked for £20 in exchange for three wraps of crack cocaine.
Tessa Hingston, prosecuting, said Wheeler had been photographed by other officers. When the image was shown to him in his police interview he accepted it showed him but denied that he had been dealing drugs.
Wheeler, now of Norcliffe Road, Park South, admitted one count of supplying crack cocaine.
Defending, Emma Handslip said her client had been left in a flat on his own with no parental support and no electricity: “There was a meter that had run out.”
At first, he had borrowed money off friends. But he had no cash with which to pay them back. He began approaching people for work and was an easy target for the dealers.
“It’s almost Dickensian,” Ms Handslip told the court. “The money was for survival. He had nothing. The electricity had gone off and there was no food in the fridge.”
He was described as a boy who had “fallen through the net”. By contrast, Wheeler was now said to be working closely with a youth engagement worker and living with his mum.
Judge Jason Taylor QC told Wheeler he would defer sentence until July 30, giving the young man an opportunity to show he had turned his life around.
He said: “It’s clear to me at the time you were naïve, you had low self-esteem and you had an unsettled life that did make you ripe for exploitation by others, especially when you openly and rather foolishly asked the dealers for a job.”
Judge Taylor put three conditions on the deferred sentence: that Wheeler try and get a job, commit no further offences and engage with his youth worker. He told the young man he would have imposed a 22 month prison term suspended for two years had he not deferred sentence.
“I’m giving you an opportunity. You need to disengage your teenage brain as best you can, because you need to work with those that want to help you – and that’s going to require determination and effort on your part,” he said.