Gang members who manufactured counterfeit hand rolling tobacco from imported raw leaves at a farm in Soulbury have been sentenced.
The base near Leighton Buzzard was one location used by the men who were part of illegal tobacco smuggling rings in the Midlands and Buckinghamshire and were prosecuted for a £600,000 tax fraud.
Four gang members were arrested following an HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) operation in 2012, which tracked their illegal activities across the West Midlands and Milton Keynes. One of the four, along with a fifth man, was then caught reoffending while on bail in 2016. The men, from Staffordshire, Milton Keynes and Birmingham, have now been sentenced at Birmingham Crown Court.
As well as the Soulbury operation, a second gang, based around Staffordshire, bought the fake product to distribute and sold it across the West Midlands from a storage unit in Cannock.
HMRC raided the premises used by both gangs in March 2012, arrested the men and dismantled the tobacco factory, seizing tobacco, vehicles and cash.
On 15 March 2012, at the unnamed Soulbury farm, 615 kilos of hand rolling tobacco with Excise Duty and VAT evaded of £93,418 was seized. Approximately 943 kilos of unprocessed, raw tobacco leaf were also seized.
The gang had been transporting the tobacco to a residential address in Bletchley and packaged it for sale across the United Kingdom to other criminals.
On the same day at the packaging site in Bletchley, 66.3 kilos of hand rolling tobacco was seized with Excise Duty and VAT evaded of £10,070. Also at this site HMRC seized a significant amount of counterfeit packaging wrappers for Golden Virginia, Amber Leaf and Benson & Hedges tobacco brands.
Philip Costello, 51, of Rugeley, Staffordshire, was jailed for five years and one month for his role with the Staffordshire gang, two years for a similar criminal offence he committed while on bail in Birmingham and 8 months for money laundering. The sentences will run concurrently.
Trevor Campbell, 51, of Hall Green, Birmingham, was jailed for 12 weeks in prison suspended for 21 months and ordered to carry out 120 hours unpaid community work for the 2016 fraud linked to Costello.
Shaun Jukes, 49, Costello’s criminal partner, also of Rugeley, was jailed for two years suspended for 21 months in April 2016.
Ernestas Vadeikis 25, of Milton Keynes, who acted as a delivery driver, was jailed for four months, suspended for 21 months, in April 2016 and ordered to do 100 hours unpaid community work.
Qing Feng Zheng, 38, originally arrested in Milton Keynes and from the Coventry area, received a four-month suspended jail sentence in March 2016 and ordered to carry out 100 hours unpaid community work.
Speaking today (Friday), Richard Young, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “These determined criminal gangs operated a network to smuggle, transport, manufacture, store and sell counterfeit tobacco, purely to evade tax. This was a serious attempt on an industrial scale to steal hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public purse and undermine local businesses.
“We urge anyone with information about the trade in smuggled or counterfeit tobacco to contact the Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000. If you’re ever offered cheap or dodgy-looking cigarettes or tobacco, call us – don’t let the crooks get away with this type of fraud.”
Three other gang members absconded following their arrest and are still being sought in connection with the tax fraud.