Tuesday 17 September 2019

Customs officers thwart elaborate smuggling plot

Judge's gavel
Judge's gavel

Rosslare Customs officers in the front line against professional smugglers told Wexford District Court how they thwarted an elaborate plot to bring almost five million illicit cigarettes into Ireland.

The haul, potentially representing €2 million plus in lost revenue to the State, came into the Europort elaborately concealed on the back of an articulated lorry in September of 2014.

No one has ever been prosecuted for the smuggling but the Revenue Commissioners came to court on April 19 seeking forfeiture of the tractor and trailer unit owned by a company with a Polish address.

It was estimated that the tractor unit of the lorry was worth €9,750 while the trailer was valued at €4,750, a total of €14,500, far shy of the value of what was on board.

The name of the company was given as Vinava, with an address at Widugiery 40, 16/515 Punsk, Poland.

The firm had a man called Gusarvus in court ready to give evidence, along with a colleague to help with translation.

Vinava was also represented by barrister Bébhinn Murphy who produced documents in Russian, Latvian and Polish.

The judge heard first from Customs officer Philip Leacy who reported that an 'anomaly' was discovered in the load on the lorry when it landed in Rosslare.

He and his colleagues had X-ray equipment which alerted them to the anomaly in a cargo of what he described as thermal storage units - large tanks, eight or nine feet high.

When officials attempted to run a camera up the pipes of these six units they found the pipes were blocked off dead ends.

Officer Harte described the units as very well sealed and they appeared to brand new.

Access was only achieved after specialist equipment was called up to allow Customs tilt the units over so that they could open trap-doors on the underside.

They discovered that each unit contained more than 800,000 cigarettes. The total haul came to 4,972,000 cigarettes, worth €2,417,000.

The driver was released having denied all knowledge of any contraband and he flew out of the country later the same day.

He was released after telling investigators that he had picked up the storage units in Paris after dropping off a consignment of concrete in the French capital.

It later emerged that the lorry was recorded with the water storage units in the trailer crossing from Latvia into Germany on its way to Ireland, with no sign of any concrete.

'The driver was incorrect,' stated Customs officer Liam Harte.

Officials made contact by phone with a man in Northern Ireland, which was the truck's destination as shown on the paperwork but they were not convinced that he had any permanent office in the North.

When it was his turn to give evidence, Gusarvus said the driver was fired after the incident but admitted that he was later re-hired.

The witness denied State Solicitor Kevin O'Doherty's suggestion that the driver was 'doing an honest job for a dishonest company'.

Mr Gusarvus insisted that the company was surprised by the discovery made in Rosslare.

He denied that Vinava had been involved in other such incidents but Mr O'Doherty responded that he could bring proof of a case at Harwich, the English ferry port, dating back to May of 2014.

Barrister Bébhinn Murphy argued that the tractor unit of the lorry should not be forfeited, as no tobacco was found in the cab.

Judge Haughton ruled that it was intimately involved in a very substantial operation and he quoted the old Frank Sinatra song.

'Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.'

The two parts of the lorry were then declared forfeit.

Wexford People