An illegal Preston cigarette factory sparked an investigation which uncovered more than 100 tonnes of imported raw tobacco with a value of £17million.
Today, three three men were jailed for a total of 16 years for the tax fraud.
HM Revenue and Customs discovered that a Poland-based criminal network used several sites in the North West and Essex to process raw tobacco into illegal tobacco products in an attempt to evade Excise Duty and VAT.
During the investigation, HMRC seized eight tonnes of tobacco in Preston in 2013, followed by arrests and more seizures of tobacco and manufacturing equipment the following year in Bury, Greater Manchester; Blackburn, Lancashire; and Halsted, Essex.
One of the men, Robert Zduniak, fled during the trial but was convicted and jailed for eight years in absence at Manchester Crown Court on Friday. His co-conspirators, Hubert Jankowski, and Lukasz Pawelec, were each jailed for four years.
Pawelec had also tried to flee but was caught at Doncaster Airport and remanded for the remainder of the trial.
Zduniak, 41, unemployed of Gloucester Road, Blackburn, was found guilty on May 26 of conspiracy to Cheat the Revenue, contrary to Common Law. He had absconded mid trial in May and was sentenced to eight years jail in absence. A warrant has been issued for his arrest. At the time of his arrest in 2014, he lived in Bury, Manchester.
Jankowski, 37, unemployed, of Gigg Lane, Bury, Manchester, pleaded guilty on January 16 to conspiracy to Cheat the Revenue, contrary to Common Law. He was sentenced to four years jail.
Pawelec, 32, a joiner by trade, of Dorothy Boot Home, Main Road, Nottingham, was found guilty on May 26 of conspiracy to Cheat the Revenue, contrary to Common Law. He attempted to abscond mid trial in May but was caught at Doncaster airport and remanded into custody for the remainder of the trial. He was sentenced to four years jail on 26 May 2017. At the time of his arrest in 2014, he lived in Blackburn, Lancashire.
In April 2014, HMRC raided a farm in Essex, as well as four premises near Bury and another in Blackburn. They seized around three tonnes of raw tobacco that was in the process of being converted into counterfeit hand rolling tobacco (HRT), £15,000 in cash, chemicals, counterfeit packaging and tobacco packing machinery. The tobacco processing plant in Essex was dismantled immediately by HMRC.
HMRC linked the 2014 seizures and the jailed men to a further eight tonnes of tobacco valued around £1.8 million in evaded duty and tax that was seized in Preston in 2013.
Further enquiries by HMRC established that the gang had imported more than 100 tonnes of raw tobacco mislabelled as ‘furniture’ into the UK, from the Czech Republic, over a 15-month period.
All businesses and individuals who carry out any activity involving raw tobacco now need to have an approval for the Raw Tobacco Approval Scheme, unless an exemption applies. Failure to have an approval in place, may result in the raw tobacco being seized and a penalty issued.