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24 February 2012, 17:05 | Updated: 24 February 2012, 17:19
A gang of seven men have been jailed for illegally importing 20 million cigarettes through Felixstowe Port in baby toys.
A gang who described over 20 million smuggled cigarettes as baby’s toys on shipping documents have been jailed after a covert surveillance operation caught them red-handed.
The seven men were arrested after some of them were seen unloading over 10 million illicit cigarettes at a warehouse in Upminster after they had been smuggled into the UK from Dubai through the port of Felixstowe. The total duty evaded is estimated as £3.3 million.
Paul Barton, Assistant Director of Criminal Investigation for HMRC, said: “If these criminals had not been stopped they would have flooded local markets with not only the 20 million illicit cigarettes we seized but would have gone on to smuggle in many more. HMRC is determined to eradicate this form of criminality and raise awareness of the devastating effect on our communities, including legitimate retailers having to compete with black market goods. Tobacco smuggling costs the country around £2 billion in lost revenue each year – money that could be funding vital public services.”
He added: “We are urging the public to be vigilant. Cheap tobacco products can often seem like an attractive offer to people lured into purchasing them at what seem like bargain prices. However, the truth is these sales are unlicensed and unregulated. And those involved are not concerned if they are selling to children and underage young people.”
HMRC and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) monitored two large freight containers shipped from Dubai, via Hong Kong which arrived at the Port of Felixstowe. The documents described the containers’ contents as 1,020 cartons of baby toys; but instead each container was crammed full with over 10 million cigarettes.
A SOCA spokesman commented: “Criminals are inventive and will use all manner of concealments to attempt to smuggle illegal cargo into the UK. This operation is an excellent example of how SOCA and HMRC working together can tackle such smuggling, irrespective of the commodity involved."
Paul O’Meara, Mark Sadgrove and Matthew Neale were arrested after a warehouse in Upminster was raided; they were in the process of unloading boxes of cigarettes from a container into the back of a vehicle. The container had been watched at Felixstowe earlier and had been kept under surveillance by HMRC officers. Wayne Stock who had left the premises earlier was arrested a short time later in Upminster.
Investigators unravelling the fraud found that O’Meara played a pivotal role in the organisation. Computer records found at his home revealed plans detailing the whole illegal operation including photographs of the container packed with cigarettes leaving Dubai. Forensic evidence found amongst the records linked Robert Doran and Patrick Gray to O’Meara and the fraud. O’Meara organised the ordering and shipping of the containers including creating the documents for moving the goods through Customs. He hijacked the details of legitimate businesses and set up a front company using an alias to handle the illegal importations into the UK.
When officers searched O’Meara’s van they found a smuggling kit, which included sample packets of cigarettes, a glossy promotion brochure and some newspaper articles about smuggled cigarettes.
Patrick Gray and Robert Doran supplied the finance and were also involved in the purchase, packaging and shipment of the cigarettes. On 12 April 2010, Doran was arrested as he entered the UK at Heathrow Airport. Gray was arrested on the 8 June 2010 at his home address in Enfield
Mark Sadgrove provided legitimate VAT numbers from reputable toy manufacturers and used these without their knowledge to clear the containers through Customs control at Felixstowe. Cleland was the contracts manager of Brightcast Scaffolding, a business owned by Gray. He was arrested at his office on 8 June 2010. When Cleland’s home address in Hornchurch was searched officers found £29,000 cash, in £1,000 bundles in a safe in his garage.
Notes for editors