The friends, who were mainly international business students at what was then Leeds Metropolitan University, made use of the now defunct Silk Road website, which was part of the internet’s so-called Dark Web that is hidden from public view.
They imported an array of illegal drugs into the country and made money selling them to their fellow students.
Ringleader Liam Reynolds, 21, ran the operation from a student house in Headingley Mount, where other members of the group lived.
Over a prolonged period they ordered consignments of MDMA, LSD and cannabis from international suppliers through the website and the drugs were sent to the UK by post.
Payments were made using Bitcoin – a digital form of currency that can be used without the buyer’s identity being revealed.
Reynolds is thought to have modelled himself on the lead character from television’s Breaking Bad, which features a teacher who moves into the drugs trade.
References to the programme were found in text messages on their phones along with a T-shirt featuring an image of the character.
Police uncovered the organised drugs operation after receiving information that the group were involved in drugs. A parcel containing a large amount of cannabis was seized and other evidence was discovered as a result of a comprehensive investigation by detectives in Leeds.
Incriminating text messages containing overt references to drugs transactions were discovered along with photographs of drugs and images of members of the group posing with drugs and cash.
Following a lengthy and complex investigation the ten members of the group were charged in May last year with a range of offences including conspiracy to import controlled drugs and conspiracy to supply controlled drugs.
Judge James Spencer, QC, told the students: “You no doubt went to university with your ambitions very high, and your self assessment very high, and you think you know everything and you think you can do everything without any responsibility. “It may come as a shock to you that the law applies equally to you as everybody else.”
Detective Inspector Jaz Khan, who heads Leeds district’s specialist drugs team, Operation Quartz and Proceeds of Crime Act team, said: “This was a very sophisticated and highly organised criminal enterprise that for a sustained period of time imported substantial quantities of controlled drugs into the UK and supplied them in the city’s student community.
“They thought that they could frustrate law enforcement by using the internet’s Dark Web to avoid detection but that proved not to be the case.
“The use of controlled drugs presents real risks to young people’s wellbeing and to our communities. One of parents’ worst fears when their children go away to university is that they will come into contact with controlled drugs. Here was a group of young men who were exploiting their positions within that student community to supply other students with access to a range of substances that were bought from abroad and could contain anything.
“These men were studying at university and had opportunities open to them that many others don’t but instead of putting their efforts into their legitimate academic endeavours they chose to operate a criminal trade in drugs.
“We hope the sentences they have received will serve as a stark reminder to others of the penalties they will face if they choose to involve themselves in the supply of controlled drugs.”
Ten students involved in the illegal operation were sentenced at Leeds Crown Court yesterday after entering guilty pleeas.
Liam Reynolds, 21, convicted of conspiracy to import ecstasy, conspiracy to import LSD, conspiracy to import cannabis, conspiracy to supply ecstasy, conspiracy to supply LSD, conspiracy to supply cannabis and money landering. He was jailed for four years. Daniel Bernard, 21, of Cross Chancellor Street, Woodhouse, convicted of conspiracy to import cannabis, conspiracy to supply ecstasy and conspiracy to supply cannabis; Nicholas O’Brien, 21, of Ashville Terrace, Hyde Park, convicted of conspiracy to supply ecstasy; Jordan Crowney, 21, of Headingley Mount, convicted of conspiracy to import ecstasy, conspiracy to import cannabis and conspiracy to supply cannabis; George Cosgrove, 22, of Tyler Row, Oxford, convicted of conspiracy to supply ecstasy; Connor Woods, 20, of Cross Chancellor Street, Woodhouse, convicted of conspiracy to import ecstasy and conspiracy to supply ecstasy. They were given two-year jail terms, suspended for two years, and 200 hours unpaid work. Paul Simms, 21, of Headingley Mount, convicted of conspiracy to import cannabis, conspiracy to supply cannabis and money laundering; Thomas Cox, 21, of Headingley Mount, convicted of conspiracy to import cannabis and conspiracy to supply cannabis; Stephen Coleman, 21, of Drummond Avenue, Leeds, convicted of conspiracy to import cannabis and conspiracy to supply cannabis. They were given 18-month prison terms, suspended for two years and told to do 200 hours unpaid work.
Joseph Wilson, 21, of Norwood Terrace, Leeds, was convicted of money laundering and given eight months, suspended for two years, plus 200 hours unpaid work.