Mafia-link cigarette smuggling gang jailed for over 30 years

Members of a smuggling ring which helped the Italian Mafia to flood Britain with black market cigarettes from a warehouse in Yorkshire were jailed for more than 30 years yesterday.

The gang, which included men from Doncaster and Barnsley, teamed up with a notorious crime family to hide contraband tobacco in shipments of pickled vegetables, dog food and orange juice.

Prosecutors told Southwark Crown Court the operation cost the taxpayer 10m in lost duty after the cheap imports were smuggled in from eastern Europe.

The court heard that once the contraband cargo had arrived in Britain it was taken to a warehouse in Denaby Main, near Doncaster, where it was split up by the gang and sent for sale nationwide.

Judge Anthony Beddoe was told the scam was masterminded by 54-year-old wine merchant Peter Vyse, but also involved four men from Doncaster and one from Barnsley, who all faced charges of evading duty.

David Colakovic, 29, of Wensleydale Road, Scawsby, Doncaster; Dean Grainger, 32, of Stanley Road, Doncaster and Paul Tucker, 50, of Challenger Drive, Sprotbrough, Doncaster, admitted their part in the scam.

Colakovic was given four years in jail, Grainger three years and four months and Tucker two years. Michael Sharpe, 49, of Sherwood Avenue, Doncaster, denied his part but was jailed for two years after a trial.

Another member of the gang, Sean Pickering, of Birk Avenue, Kendray, Barnsley, was given a 12-month jail sentence suspended for two years and 150 hours of unpaid work after pleading guilty.

The court heard that ringleader Vyse, who was jailed for seven years, made up to 30 trips to Romania and Greece to organise shipments, meeting members of the Prudentino crime family from south eastern Italy.

Prosecutor Richard Jory said HM Revenue and Customs made five seizures of contraband between November 2007 and June 2008 following a huge surveillance operation, recovering more than eight million cigarettes.

Investigators believe at least ten other loads involving up to 40 million cigarettes had been smuggled during the previous eight months.

Mr Jory said: "The importation of these cigarettes and their subsequent distribution led to excise duty tax evasion on a massive scale.

"This criminal group had contacts abroad to source somewhere the cigarettes could be made and they were brought into the country concealed within seemingly legitimate imports.

The court heard that Vyse worked with three members of the Prudentino family, Albino, Maurizio and Angelo. The Prudentinos were described as being "at the top of the pyramid", with Vyse heading their UK arm.

But the smuggling organisation was smashed in a series of coordinated arrests on June 17 2008, following a secret surveillance operation by customs officials.

Mr Jory told the court the gang avoided paying 2m in duty on the five consignments seized, but said the true figure was closer to 10m because there had been at least 10 previous shipments.

Vyse, of Cheshunt, Herts, was found guilty following a retrial, after an earlier jury was unable to reach a verdict.

The court heard that the operation involved four other people, including 37-year-old Louise Thurston, of Gloucestershire, who set up a series of "front" companies which were used by the smugglers.

She was jailed two years and four months after pleading guilty to evading duty, while Dennis Lynch, 44, of Potters Bar, Herts, and Terrance Boreham, of Eastwick, Essex, were jailed for eight years between them after a trial.

Stephen Eley, 48 of Harlow, Essex, admitted his role in the conspiracy and was jailed for two years.

Judge Beddoe said he had given Vyse the maximum sentence available for his crimes, but called for the sentencing powers in relation to the offence to be increased.

He described Vyse's offending as "off-the-scale" in terms of the sentencing range available and told him: "It is through you that others have been corrupted into joining this enterprise."