Tobacco baron Phillip Hall wanted to earn a fortune making fake cigarettes and tobacco but is now behind bars after the plan turned into a pipe dream.
It went up in smoke after customs officers secretly put him under surveillance and discovered he was linked to a string of multi-million pound plots.
The 52-year-old was involved with a gang that traded smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes illegally manufactured in the UK and set up a factory in the East Midlands capable of making up to 625 million counterfeit cigarettes.
When jailing Hall for five years for his part in the racket in 2011, a judge told him: “The project was grand with a series of plants set to evade duty and make millions.”
Hall was also the brains behind an £8.5 million tobacco smuggling scam that ended in further jail terms for him and two of his henchmen at Nottingham Crown Court yesterday. The three were part of a 13-strong gang that secretly imported raw leaf into the UK through Europe together with cutting and shredding machines.
The crooks used manufacturing plants set up in industrial units throughout the Black Country and elsewhere to turn the leaf into counterfeit rolling tobacco that was illegally sold as Golden Virginia.
The premises included addresses in Willenhall Street, Wednesbury, Ashmore Lake Way, Willenhall, Macrome Road, Aldersley and Burton Road East, Dudley.
Investigators said Hall was a pivotal figure in the fraudulent evasion of tobacco duty, arranging the importation of machinery and tobacco and deciding what to buy and when. He negotiated with foreign suppliers and set the price for the sale of fake tobacco pouches on UK streets. He also created bogus businesses to conceal the scale of the fraud and the role of the gang.
The scam started to unravel after customs officers swooped on the Wednesbury plant in August 2009 and discovered a large haul of shredded tobacco and pouches of the counterfeit tobacco.
Unprocessed tobacco leaf was found at the Willenhall premises and further raids followed at those in Aldersley and Dudley where shredding machinery and more tobacco was unearthed early the next year.
Gary Lampon, assistant director of Criminal Investigation for Revenue and Customs said after yesterday’s case: “This was a well organised international crime gang with career-criminal Hall as its mastermind.
“The smuggling plot operated on a commercial scale, both in its organisation of capital and its workforce. They had no regard for the money they stole from public finances and honest taxpayers, which has been substantial. We are determined to bring those involved in this form of criminality before the courts so justice can be served.”
Hall, who variously lived at Ruskin Road, Fallings Park, Oberon Grove, Wednesbury, and Highland Way, Rugeley, and is already serving the prison term imposed for the East Midland cigarette racket pleaded guilty to fraudulent evasion of duty and received a further two-year term yesterday that will be served at the same time.
His henchmen Thomas Connors and John O’Brien were each locked up for three and a half years and two years two months for their roles.
Kelly Sowden, 30, of Wolverhampton Street, Wednesbury who pleaded guilty to the fraud, received a three-month suspended prison sentence with 120 hours’ unpaid work. She was a packer for the counterfeit tobacco pouches and helped to buy some of the machinery. Donald James, 54, from Meschines Street, Coventry, who worked alongside Hall pleaded guilty and got a 12-month suspended jail term.
Joy Richards, 51, of Oberon Grove, Wednesbury, admitted the offence and was given an eight-month suspended sentence.
She opened bank accounts and used existing accounts to make payments to Italy for the tobacco. Her home was also used to prepare and fill pouches of counterfeit Golden Virginia.
James Patrick Richards, 20, of the same address pleaded guilty and was sentenced to carry out 80 hours of unpaid work. He helped to produce the counterfeit Golden Virginia. Vicky
Hall, aged 27, from Rednal, Birmingham, was found guilty and given a three-month jail sentence, suspended for 18 months. She allowed her bank accounts to be used for the fraud.
Michael Panayi aged 56 from Broughton Astley, Leicestershire, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for 18 months, and ordered to carry out unpaid work. He allowed a barn to be used to store a shredder and tobacco and hid machinery.
Simon John Howard, 45, of Hornchurch, Essex, was found guilty and received a 21- month jail term suspended for 18 months with 240 hours of unpaid work and a six- month night time curfew. He bought and imported tobacco shredding machines from Russia and helped to purchase tobacco.
Paul Percival, 52, from Springfield, Chelmsford, was found guilty and given an identical sentence to Howard. Both had similar involvement in the crime. Two other defendants – a 57 year old man from Leeds and another man aged 45 of no fixed address – also received suspended jail sentences after admitting the offence.