Members of gang regularly travelled to Belgium and Holland to buy hand rolling tobacco before posting it to accomplices across the region.
Key players John Hodgson, 45, of no fixed abode; his brother, Paul Hodgson, 46, of Catterick, and Paul Hooper, 53, of Darlington, led the criminal scheme which cheated the taxpayer out of more than £1m in duty.
HM Revenue and Customs said the flow of tobacco into the UK was so regular that when officers arrested eight of the gang, a courier arrived at one of their homes to deliver yet another consignment.
Four of the close-knit group were handed jail sentences totalling more than 17 years on Friday.
Diane Donnelly, operational leader of HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service, said: “This was an organised and sustained attack on the tax system, devised to deprive the public purse of duty.
“Week in, week out, these crooks dedicated their time to smuggling huge quantities of illicit tobacco into the region. But they grew greedier and greedier, showing incredible naivety in their belief that they would go unnoticed.
“Disrupting criminal trade is at the heart of our strategy to clamp down on the illicit tobacco market, which costs the taxpayer around £2 billion a year and hurts legitimate retailers.”
Gang members convicted
Those convicted of conspiracy to evade excise duty were:
John Hodgson, 45, of no fixed abode; Paul Hodgson, 46, of Forest Drive, Catterick; Joshua Hodgson, 24, of Forest Drive, Catterick; David Hodgson, 68, of Oaktree Court, Catterick; Russell Blakeburn, 60, currently residing in Spain; Paul Stephen Hooper, 53, of Appleton Close, Darlington; Ian George Gregory, 60, of Bevanlee Road, Middlesbrough; Daniel Keith Whitmore, 26, of Pensbury Street, Darlington; Peter Melvin Jackson, 59, of no fixed abode.
Those convicted of the fraudulent evasion of excise duty were:
Joanne Haxell, 35, of Milltop, Richmond; Deborah Jayne Bowie, 40, of Lindsay Avenue, Wakefield; Pamela Violet Hall, 65, of Church Street, Shildon; Angela Phyllis Mary Marquiss, 38, of Stuart Avenue, Richmond; Trevor Seal, 44, of Willow End, Front Street, Appleton Wisk; Ashlea Paul Kirk, 45, of The Potlands, Leeming Bar.
How the plot worked
Between July 2012 and August 2013 the gang’s key players - John Hodgson; his brother, Paul, and nephew, Joshua, together with Blakeburn, Hooper, Whitmore, Gregory and Jackson - made a total of 57 trips to the continent, often in vehicles owned by David Hodgson, John and Paul’s father.
Regularly challenged as they re-entered the UK, the men were frequently abusive to Border Force officers and often gave implausible reasons for their travel.
In March 2012, the Hodgson brothers, together with Blakeburn and Kirk, told officers at Dover they had been to visit a friend, a Hungarian waiter named Max, although they couldn’t remember his surname.
And in July 2012, also at Dover, Whitmore and Gregory stated they had been working as plasterers in Oostende, Belgium – despite having only been away for 36 hours and carrying no work clothing or equipment in their vehicle.
HMRC investigators found that at least 282 parcels, containing an estimated four tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco worth £792,000 in unpaid duty, were delivered to the addresses of co-conspirators. The packages were often described as plant pots and decorating supplies.
Haxell, Bowie, Hall, Gregory, Marquiss, Seal and Kirk agreed to have packages of illicit tobacco delivered to their homes in Middlesbrough, County Durham and North Yorkshire.
Parcels linked to the gang containing a further 1.9 tonnes of hand-rolling tobacco, worth £376,000 in unpaid duty, were intercepted at ports around the country throughout the fraud.
Searches at the homes of David Hodgson, John Hodgson, Joanne Haxell, Paul Hooper, Ian Gregory, Daniel Whitmore and Peter Jackson in August 2013 uncovered further evidence, including illicit tobacco at Paul Hodgson’s address.
Travel documents, hand-written sales records and packaging consistent with parcels seized at the border were also seized, while text messages found on mobile phones referenced the sale and supply of ‘baccy’.
John Hodgson was unable to explain why his fingerprints had been found on parcels, and went on to claim he was a self-employed painter and decorator, but admitted he had not declared any income to HMRC.
Investigators discovered David Hodgson had spent £1.1m in two North Yorkshire bookmakers – with son Paul forking out a further £572,000 – over a period of just 13 months, despite the pair being in receipt of benefits.
All admitted the offences at Teesside Crown Court in June 2016.
Before sentencing the gang at the same court on Friday, His Honour Judge Morris said: “Duty is the lifeblood of the revenue, it pays for operations, schools, warships, planes, roads – you name it.
“Every illegal fag that someone rolls is ripping the heart out of the Treasury’s coffers, and it’s no laughing matter.
“Over a million pounds in duty was stolen from this country by you. And now, a million pounds down, the taxpayer is going to have to pay to imprison some of you.”
Paul and John Hodgson were each sentenced to four years and 10 months in prison; Paul Hooper to four years and seven months in prison; and Joshua Hodgson to three years in prison.
Whitmore was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended for two years; Kirk to two years in prison, suspended for two years; Marquiss to one year in prison, suspended for two years; and Ian Gregory to five months in prison, suspended for 18 months.
Haxell, Bowie and Blakeburn were all ordered to undertake unpaid work of 250 hours each, while Seal was ordered to do 200 hours.
David Hodgson, who the court heard was a ‘gambler on a stupendous scale’, was remanded to be sentenced at a later date. Peter Jackson and Pamela Hall will be sentenced on 20 December.