A company director who sold hundreds of thousands of smuggled cigarettes and kilos of illicit hand rolling tobacco through his Wolverhampton shop was starting a two-year four-month jail sentence today.
Zemnako Azad Salih hid the counterfeit goods in a warren of secret compartments that littered Sam Euro Style store, in Newhampton Road West, Whitmore Reans, a judge heard.
The 36-year-old ignored advice given to him by Wolverhampton Council investigators during a string of raids on the premises and fled as the net closed around him, Wolverhampton Crown Court was told.
WATCH: Truck-load of illegal cigarettes revealed
Footage: Wolverhampton Council
Salih, who had lived at Sparrows Nest, Perton, while in the city, was attacked twice after running up huge gambling debts and feared for his safety, it was said.
He spent three years on the run in Germany with his partner and their young child but was arrested in Dover when he tried to return to the UK on July 12 last year and has been held in custody since then.
Council Trading Standards officers first swooped on the shop after being tipped off by a member of the public on August 29, 2014, and, with the help of tobacco detection dogs, found 11,540 smuggled cigarettes and a kilo of hand rolling tobacco, explained Mr William Douglas-Jones, prosecuting.
The haul was checked by representatives from Golden Virginia and Winston cigarettes who confirmed it was counterfeit.
Salih was given advice about smuggled cigarettes with foreign labels but another multi agency search unearthed 140 sleeves - each holding 200 cigarettes with foreign health warnings - in a concealed space between the wall and the cigarette gantry on April 23, 2015.
More than 21,000 cigarettes and more rolling tobacco were seized and confirmed as illicit.
Another raid on July 17, 2015, found over 260,000 smuggled cigarettes and 34 kilos of illicit tobacco concealed in magnetically sealed compartments in pillars, under the shop counter, in a padlocked flat above the shop and a fridge in a rear store room.
The total haul seized between August 2014 and September 2015 - when a blind test purchase by an investigator bought 200 smuggled cigarettes for just £25 - was valued at over £52,000 but may have been just a fraction of the trade's true worth.
Salih, who is still over £70,000 in debt and was of previous good character, was charged with using false trade marks and possessing criminal property but vanished before a court hearing on July 29 2016.
He pleaded guilty to the offences on his return.
Mr Mark Sharman, defending, said: "He accepts full responsibility for the offending which was financially motivated. His problem was gambling.
"He was not very good at it and ran up very considerable debts which he was under pressure to repay, as was illustrated by the two attacks on him. He feared for his well-being."
Salih was jailed, banned him from acting as a company director for five years and had his liquor sale licence taken by Judge Simon Ward who told him: "You are a persistent offender who knew what you were doing was illegal and didn't care.
"The offending went on for a long time and was aggravated by the number of visits and seizures which did not stop you."
Wolverhampton Council's trading standards team estimate Salih sold £200k worth of illegal and counterfeit cigarettes and tobacco at the shop.
Following the sentencing, Wolverhampton Council cabinet member, Councillor Steve Evans, said: “Selling and supplying counterfeit tobacco is a serious crime that not only robs the public purse of much needed revenue, but also poses a real threat to public health.
“Selling these products brings unwanted organised crime into our communities and undermines our efforts to discourage smoking.
“I hope the outcome sends out a warning to those who continue to fund this criminal activity, that we are serious about clamping down on the sale of these illegal and dangerous products.
"I encourage anyone who knows of illegal tobacco being sold to report it, so we can work together to tackle this issue, and to prosecute offenders."