A gang that ran what could be the UK’s largest illegal tobacco factory in a £10m fraud scam have been jailed.
The factory, in County Durham, could produce 140 packs of cigarettes a minute, according to customs officers.
The operation was run by John Watson Snr, 47, from Doncaster, Terrence Jacques, 60, of Bishop Auckland, and Russell Haywood, 48, from Barnsley.
They and seven other members of the group were jailed at Sheffield Crown Court for excise fraud.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) said the group ran a highly sophisticated and well organised illegal operation and the factory was the largest it had ever found.
Customs officers uncovered the factory at a farm unit at Crook, County Durham, when they raided several properties in County Durham and South Yorkshire in November 2015.
More than 24 tonnes of tobacco and 500,000 cigarettes were found along with the machinery to make cigarettes.
Watson Snr and Jacques were responsible for setting up and operating the factory and Haywood would arrange distribution across the north of England, HMRC said.
Watson Snr at the time earned less than £15,000 a year, as a director of Doncaster Greyhound Stadium, but had spent £180,000 on cars and a holiday for 18 people.
When Jacques was arrested at his home officers found a bag containing £46,500 in cash. Watson Snr’s fingerprints were on the bag.
Other members of the gang were also arrested following the raids.
HMRC said Aleksandras Seremetjevas and Mindaugus Aleksandravicius, both from Lithuania, were responsible for running the factory and managing the workers there.
The cigarettes would then be moved to a nearby garden centre where Edward Kennyford, from Doncaster, would arrange to transfer them to vans driven by Christopher Wallace and Steven Quigley, both from Barnsley.
John Watson Jnr, from Doncaster, would help in loading the cigarettes while the garden centre owner, John Seaman, of Stanley, Co Durham, would ensure the security cameras were switched off as the cigarettes were moved.
Another two men, Paul Drummond, from Tipton, West Midlands, and Ryan Lowe, of Barnsley, were later seen transferring cigarettes worth £96,326 in unpaid duty outside a storage facility in Barnsley.
Seven of the 12 gang members admitted excise fraud at hearings at Leeds and Sheffield crown courts in 2019.
The remaining five men were convicted following a trial at Sheffield Crown Court.
Two remaining members are due to be sentenced in April.
The gang members were:
- John Watson Snr, 47, of Ellison Street, Thorne, Doncaster, was found guilty of excise fraud and was jailed for five years three months
- Russell Haywood, 48, of Intake Gardens, Barnsley, admitted excise fraud and was sentenced to four years three months
- Terence Jacques, 60, of Howlea Lane, Hamsterley, Bishop Auckland, was found guilty of excise fraud and was sentenced to five years
- Steven Quigley, 53, of Bainton Drive, Barnsley, was found guilty of excise fraud and was sentenced to three years eight months
- John Seaman, 66, of Wooley Terrace, Stanley, was found guilty of excise fraud and was sentenced to three years three months
- Ryan Lowe, 40, of East End Crescent, Barnsley, admitted excise fraud and was sentenced to two years
- Edward Kennyford, 72, of Princess Avenue, Stainforth, Doncaster, admitted excise fraud and was sentenced to two years 11 months
- John Watson Jnr, 26, of Runnymede Road, Doncaster, admitted excise fraud and was sentenced to two years three months
- Christopher Wallace, 40, of Elstead Close, Barugh Green, Barnsley, admitted excise fraud and was sentenced to 12 months
- Paul Drummond, 49, of Burnt Tree, Tipton, admitted excise fraud and was sentenced to 13 months in prison, suspended for two years. He was also ordered to complete 150 hours of unpaid work and was given a four-month curfew
- Mindaugus Aleksandravicius, 47, of Lithuania (formerly of Lincoln Road, Peterborough), was found guilty of excise fraud and is due to be sentenced in April
- Aleksandras Seremetjevas, 35, of Lithuania, (formerly of Lincoln Road, Peterborough), admitted excise fraud and is also due to be sentenced in April.