A married couple who dumped World War Two Mustard Gas canisters in a lake have been sentenced for possessing a chemical weapon after what is thought to be the first such prosecution in the UK.
Military enthusiast Martyn Tasker was jailed for five years after the discovery of 16 abandoned canisters at a former RAF based used in the Second World War – as well as a separate charged of possessing two Bren machine guns.
His wife Michaela Tasker and friend Stuart Holmes were spared jail for their part in helping to dispose of the canisters after receiving suspended sentences at Nottingham Crown Court on Friday.
The Environment Agency said the “feckless” trio were the first to be charged with possessing a chemical weapon in the country.
They were arrested after the Taskers, of Longdales Road, Lincoln, sought medical help for arm blisters and a difficulty in breathing following their find in Roughton Woods near Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, in October 2017.
The court heard Mrs Tasker had collapsed in a GP’s waiting room due to respiratory difficulties.
Martyn, 40, Michaela, 32, and Holmes, 51, previously admitted possession of a chemical weapon and breaching environmental laws by dumping hazardous material in Stixwould Lake near where Holmes worked.
Holmes, of Witham Road, Woodhall Spa, also pleaded guilty to a separate charge of dumping a substance likely to harm human health or pollute the environment.
Authorities were forced to secure the lake, woods and some residential homes in a major 11-day operation which involved over 20 separate agencies.
Jailing Martyn Tasker, Mr Justice Jeremy Baker said the former Territorial Army soldier had showed a “flagrant disregard for the law”.
Speaking to the trio, the judge said: “In my judgment this is a case where your state of mind involved the deliberate commission of this offence, in that it is clear in my judgment that the decision to dispose of the canisters instead of contacting Explosive Ordnance Disposal or any other lawful authority, was not, as I have already observed, due to any genuine belief that it would be safe to do so.
“It was designed to cover up the fact that the three of you had been involved in transporting these items away from the site where you had found them and were in unlawful possession of these items.
“Given your knowledge of the extremely hazardous nature of the contents of the canisters, I am satisfied that the decision to dispose of the canisters in this manner instead of contacting Explosive Ordnance Disposal or any other lawful authority, was not due to any genuine belief that it would be safe to do so, but was designed to cover up the fact that the three of you were in unlawful possession of the canisters.”
Following the sentencing, Ben Thornely, incident management lead at the Environment Agency, said: “Mustard gas is extremely toxic, so dumping it in a lake near people’s homes and in a popular woodland enjoyed by Scouts and dog-walkers was appallingly dangerous.
“Luckily the old, corroded containers didn’t leak and were safely disposed of by professionals who showed bravery, ingenuity and collaboration to keep people safe.
“This incident was entirely unique, so it’s satisfying the judge recognised the grave threat posed and we hope this sentence sends a clear message – we won’t hesitate to take action against those who so carelessly put people and our precious environment at risk.”
Chief Inspector Phil Vickers, of Lincolnshire Police, said: “This operation challenged the emergency services, military and partner agencies in ways that we have never experienced in Lincolnshire before – in fact some of the issues had never been faced anywhere before.
“Bringing together 27 agencies to protect the community of Woodhall Spa and surrounding area was no mean feat – everyone pulled together and we witnessed bravery from our military, insight from our specialist advisers, ingenuity from the Environment Agency and commitment from all involved.
“This was truly a successful multi-agency team effort – we achieved our aim of protecting the community from harm, and used our wide range of skills and experience to do so.”