Felixstowe/Sudbury: Gang which illegally imported 20m cigarettes is jailed

AN INTERNATIONAL smuggling gang which illegally imported 20 million cigarettes disguised as toys has been jailed for a total of nearly 25 years.

The operation was bankrolled by a multimillionaire British businessman, based in Dubai, and required “meticulous planning”, Ipswich Crown Court heard.

The Dubai-manufactured M&J cigarettes had a total black market value of up to �3 million. The gang planned to avoid �3.3 million in importation duty.

They were arrested after investigators placed them under surveillance, and were caught red handed as the cigarettes were shipped through the Port of Felixstowe in November 2009.

Describing the operation, prosecutor Mark Paltenghi said: “An international smuggling operation of this kind would require meticulous planning at every stage. It also required a significant up-front cost.”

He added: “The group decided the cargo should be described as something bulky but innocent. They described the containers as toys.

“They did not use the shortest, direct route between Dubai and the UK because Dubai is not famous for manufacturing toys.

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“Instead they used a route some 8,000 miles longer via Hong Kong as this would avoid suspicion.”

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) led the investigation.

Mr Paltenghi said Paul O’Meara, described as the “lynchpin”, was responsible for setting up the deal bankrolled by multimillionaire Robert Doran and Patrick Gray, who owned a scaffolding company.

Doran ran Crayford International, a Dubai-based company, and Crayford Creek Properties in the UK. Several years earlier he had sold a waste management company for �79 million.

Gray, who also provided part of the set-up cost estimated at about �200,000, met O’Meara through Doran.

Martin Cleland, Mark Sadgrove, Wayne Stock and Matthew Neale worked as “foot soldiers” under the three men’s leadership, Mr Paltenghi said.

O’Meara, Sadgrove and Neale were arrested after a warehouse in Upminster was raided by officers.

Stock was arrested a short time later while the three other gang members were traced months later.

In mitigation the court heard O’Meara, once a wealthy businessman, had financial problems and “took the wrong route out”.

Along with Doran and Gray, who was a “minority investor”, he admitted the offence at the earliest opportunity.

The seriousness of the final four men’s involvement was far less than that of the three ringleaders, the court heard.

O’Meara, 48, of Sudbury; Doran, 47, of Dubai; and Gray, 53, of Hertford, all admitted conspiracy to evade excise duty.

They were each ordered to serve four years and six months in prison.

Cleland, 45, of Hornchurch; Sadgrove, 39, of Loughton; Neale, 44, of Harlow; and Stock, 38, of Chelmsford, all in Essex, were found guilty of conspiracy after a trial.

Cleland was ordered to serve four years and six months, Sadgrove two and a half years and Stock and Neale two years.