It was a word many heard on BBC hit Line of Duty but didn’t understand – “cuckooing” sounds quaint but it hides horrific stories of terrified people becoming prisoners in their homes.
Organised crime gangs take over that person’s property – whether they are elderly, have learning difficulties or drug or alcohol dependency – and use their home for criminal activity.
Just like with Line of Duty’s Terry Boyle.
Now a Mirror investigation has uncovered a catalogue of cases across the nation and victims of cuckooing have bravely shared their stories.
Our probe even found the names and addresses vulnerable people – potential cuckooing victims – are being used as a form of currency, bought and sold by criminals, often in jails.
“You will find that prisoners are selling information for drugs on the inside about a vulnerable property in their area,” says Darren Burton, head of housing consultancy services for Forbes Solicitors, who works with the police and other agencies to prevent cuckooing and help victims escape.
Cuckooing can have lasting effects on the victims – as well as having a devastating impact on the wider community.
Darren explains: “They can feel suicidal, feeling like they have nowhere to turn.
“We have seen examples where they are having their money and benefits taken, withholding food, threats of or actual physical violence, destroying their belongings and the properties.
“People don’t want to live there, there is a culture of silence, people don’t want to speak out, there can be a tense atmosphere particularly if people live next door or on the same landing.”
Mark – whose name we have changed for his own safety – was a victim of cuckooing in Oxford.
He had fallen into drug abuse and at first thought his dealers were his friends when they wanted to come to his flat.
But he soon realised they had an ulterior motive – they wanted to deal drugs.
He says: “It soon became apparent that if things didn’t go their way what would happen.”
Mark’s case worker from Oxford Council, Monica Walton, says that victims of cuckooing like Mark often don’t know where to turn for help.
And that the practice isn’t always about using a property for drugs.
She explains: “It is not just properties, it is people. There is a group of women that tend to go round and use older men for sexual pleasure to get money.
“I think the last time I went and did some visits it was connected to about 10 different addresses and these men are in their 80s.’
“These people don’t realise they are being cuckooed – and therefore their plight may go under the radar for years.”
Liz Jones, Oxford City Council’s Anti-Social Behaviour Investigation Team Manager, explains: “I would say at the moment there are probably about 20 or so properties in Oxford at the moment where we suspect they are being cuckooed.
“Sometimes people are cuckooing to get a bed for a number of nights. They have got vulnerabilities but they are exploiting an elderly person.”
Police organised crime units have identified four different types.
Parasitic cuckooing is taking over addresses by force and quasi cuckooing is exploitation of a person based on their vulnerability, often by drug users.
Coupling is forming a sexual relationship to take over properties.
There is also local cuckooing which refers to local offenders who take over an address in the proximity of their home or their community where exploitation, violence and drug dealing can take place.
It is a practice closely linked with county lines operations where gangs travel to different parts of the country to sell drugs, often using vulnerable youngsters as mules and dealers.
There are around 1,000 different county lines operating across the country with each one making an estimated annual profit of around £800,000 – a staggering £800million.
The gangs also use other forms of exploitation including coercion, trafficking, child sexual exploitation, gun and knife crime.
Mark became a victim of cuckooing after he fell into heroin and crack cocaine use.
At first he thought the dealers were his friends and invited them in when they asked to come to his flat in Oxford to deliver his drugs.
By the time he realised they wanted his flat as a base to deal drugs from, it was too late – Mark was in debt to them and trapped.
He says: “All I cared about at that time was drugs. When I went to score they would always say can we come to your flat? It soon became apparent that if things didn’t go their way what would happen. Sometimes there would be 14 lads in my flat. If any of their dealers got robbed they would come down with metal strips, hammers, knives, it was really intimidating.
“They didn’t physically threaten me but I knew what would happen if I didn’t do as they said.
“They had made themselves comfortable in the flat and they would sit there all day.
“I didn’t feel like I was a vulnerable person at the time. I just thought I was another drug user who was doing what he had to do to get through the day. I felt part of it although in reality I was being used.”
Mark was only able to escape when a neighbour called police due to noise coming from the flat.
Police and the council realised that Mark was being cuckooed and offered him the support he needed to get help.
Mark says: “My case workers Monica from the council and Rob from the police were amazing. They didn’t want to throw me in jail.
They offered me help and support. By that time I had had enough and I wanted to do anything to escape.
They used to check on me everyday to check that the dealers weren’t coming back. Monica introduced me to the drugs service and got me into rehab.
I did four months in rehab and then went to supported housing. I have been clean for two and half years, I’ve got a new flat and full time work.
“If anyone else is in my position please reach out to the police or the council. There is help out there and it has changed my life.”
DI Mark Catney from Yorkshire and Humber Regional Organised Crime Unit says: “We recognise cuckooing and county lines crime as very serious threats.
“Targeting vulnerable people is unacceptable. One place you are supposed to feel safe is in your own home.”
Cuckooed houses are also used as places for gangs to carry out violence.
In one case DI Mark Catney worked on in 2018, a man who was involved in a dispute over drugs with a gang was taken to an apparently cuckooed address.
He was stripped naked, had boiling water poured over his genitals and forced to sing and dance to Whitney Houston songs purely for his vile attackers’ amusement.
The victim had previously been tortured in his own home and a knife was held to the stomach of his heavily pregnant girlfriend.
Aimee’s home in London’s Camden was taken over by a gang after a man who she thought was a friend started inviting his friends over.
But soon things spiralled out of Aimee’s control and her house was being used to deal drugs.
On a video released by the Metropolitan Police, she says: “One of them became a really good friend of mine he was a really nice young man.
“But his friends started coming along and then more friends started coming along and they just started taking over the house and it just got worse.
“I just started having a mental breakdown, started crying all the time. I mostly just stayed in the other room an they would come in and take over the rest of the house.
” They brought friends and would be drinking and ordering food all the time and getting people to wrap up drugs and started selling drugs and things like that from my home which I never allowed and never wanted but I just could never do anything about it and it got worse after that and they started getting worse towards me, being abusive towards me.
“They’re not your friends they just want to use your home. They destroy your home, they haven’t got any respect for you.
“There was a lot of help and support there for me which I was very shocked and amazed by and I still get help and support now. I’m a lot better in myself mentally, a lot better in myself. I’m a lot stronger.
“The police and the council have just been amazing to me I couldn’t have done it without them. The police are there to help and support you and they’re not going to judge you.”
Sakhawat Hussain, 35, of Batley, and Andre Clarke, 30, of Newsome, Huddersfield, were both convicted of affray, kidnapping, causing grievous bodily harm with intent and two counts of false imprisonment.
They were jailed for 15 years each.
And in February and March this year as part of a crackdown on county lines gangs, DI Catney and his team arrested four boys from Leeds, one aged 16 and three aged 17, who were believed to be staying with a vulnerable person in a cuckooed property in Harrogate.
Officers recovered a significant quantity of crack cocaine and heroin, phones, cash and a large hunting knife.
In December last year, a pair of “cuckoo” drug dealers were jailed after taking over a vulnerable woman’s Devon home and using it as their distribution base.
Tom Dwyer and Brandon Murray were caught red handed when police raided the house in Paignton and found them in the middle of bagging up heroin and crack.
Murray, 20, from Ellesmere Port, and Dwyer, 25, of Wallasey, both admitted possession of heroin and cocaine with intent to supply and possession of criminal property.
Murray was jailed for two years and seven months and Dwyer for three years and three months.
Now police, local councils and agencies are working together to help identify potentially vulnerable people and educate healthcare workers, teachers and housing officers to recognise the tell-tale signs of cuckooing and help victims break free.
DI Catney says: “The main emphasis of our work is to educate communities and professionals to know how to spot the signs of cuckooing so we can intervene at the earliest opportunity. I would urge people to look out for vulnerable relatives or neighbours to ensure they don’t fall victim. I welcome Line of Duty highlighting this terrible crime.”