THE masterminds behind a £10million fraud have been jailed after they were caught running the UK’s largest illegal tobacco factory – which could produce 140 packs of cigarettes a minute – in a County Durham town.

John Watson Snr, 47, who was a director of Doncaster Greyhound stadium, Terence Jacques, 60, and security guard Russell Haywood, 48, led a 12-man gang that made millions of counterfeit cigarettes which were distributed across the North of England.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) carried out coordinated raids at properties linked to the gang in County Durham and South Yorkshire in November 2015.

Officers discovered the largest tobacco factory ever encountered by HMRC inside a farm unit in Crook. The factory had more than 24 tonnes of tobacco inside, along with 500,000 cigarettes, old imperial tobacco machinery and products used to make the cigarettes. Officers also discovered caravans that were being used by the factory workforce.

The Northern Echo:

The cigarettes produced at the factory were moved to a nearby garden centre, before being distributed to locations in the North-East and South Yorkshire.

Watson Snr said he earned less than £15,000 a year at the time, but investigators discovered he had spent more than £180,000 on luxury cars and a holiday.

Today, ten members of the gang were sentenced at Sheffield Crown Court.

Aleksandras Seremetjevas, 35, and Mindaugus Aleksandravicius, 47, will be sentenced at the same court on April 2.

Eden Noblett, Assistant Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “This was a highly sophisticated and well organised illegal operation, which put millions of counterfeit cigarettes on the streets of the UK.

“The illegal tobacco factory was the largest HMRC has ever found, and was capable of producing commercial quantities of cigarettes. The weight of the tobacco found at the factory was equivalent to two London double decker buses.”

The Northern Echo:

Seven of the men admitted excise fraud at separate hearings at Leeds and Sheffield Crown Court in 2019.

The remaining five men were found guilty of excise fraud on February 10 and 11, following a trial at Sheffield Crown Court.

In total, HMRC seized cigarettes, tobacco and associated paraphernalia capable of evading more than £10million in duty. Proceedings are underway to recover the unpaid duty.

Watson Snr and his right-hand man, Jacques, were responsible for setting up and running the tobacco factory, whilst Haywood managed distribution of the cigarettes across the North of England.

Seremetjevas and Aleksandravicius oversaw the day-to-day running of the factory, recruited factory workers and arranged movement of cigarettes to a unit at the Stanley Garden Centre, in Crook.

Edward Kennyford, 72, was in charge of moving cigarettes out of the garden centre. He met with drivers Christopher Wallace, 40, and Steven Quigley, 53, at a layby off the A68 in Durham to handover vans filled with the counterfeit goods.

Watson Jnr, 26, helped load cigarettes into the vans at the garden centre.

Whilst the illegal activity took place the owner of the garden centre, John Seaman, 66, switched off the CCTV cameras.

The drivers delivered the cigarettes to locations across the North-East and Yorkshire as instructed by Haywood.

HMRC shut down the illegal factory in November 2015 when officers executed search warrants at the farm unit, garden centre, and home addresses of Watson Snr and Jacques.

Watson Snr fled the scene in his car when officers arrived at his home, but later attended Doncaster police station.

Investigations revealed he had spent more than £180,000 on cars and a holiday for 18 people. At the time he was earning less than £15,000 a year as a director at Doncaster Greyhound stadium.

Jacques was arrested at his home in Hamsterley, Bishop Auckland, and a search of the property uncovered a bag containing £46,500 cash in his bedside drawer. Fingerprints found on the bag belonged to Watson Snr.

Officers also visited a unit rented by Jacques on Tow Law Industrial Estate and uncovered cigarette paraphernalia which could produce goods worth more than £9,000,000 in duty.

Aleksandravicius and Watson Jnr fled Stanley Garden Centre when HMRC officers arrived, but they were subsequently arrested by police nearby.

Kennyford and Quigley were arrested at a layby near Crook Community Leisure Centre with a van containing 768,000 cigarettes.

A further 256,000 cigarettes were found in Kennyford’s vehicle which was parked at the garden centre.

One month later, Paul Drummond, 49, and Ryan Lowe, 40, were seen transferring cigarettes worth £96,326 in unpaid duty between two vans outside a storage facility in Barnsley.

Drummond then met with Haywood on a nearby street and exchanged a package containing £20,000 through their vehicle windows. Both men were arrested at the scene.

Mr Noblett added: “Trade in illegal tobacco undermines legitimate traders, including small, independent shops that serve local communities, and takes funding away from our vital public services.

“We encourage anyone with information about the illegal sale of tobacco or alcohol to report it online or call the Fraud Hotline on 0800 788 887.”

* Watson Snr, of Ellison Street, Thorne, Doncaster, was found guilty of excise fraud and was sentenced to five years and three months; Haywood, of Intake Gardens, Barnsley, admitted excise fraud (four years and three months); Jacques, Howlea Lane, Hamsterley, Bishop Auckland, found guilty of excise fraud (five years); Quigley, Bainton Drive, Barnsley, found guilty of excise fraud (three years and eight months); Seaman, Wooley Terrace, Stanley, found guilty of excise fraud (three years and three months); Lowe, East End Crescent, Barnsley, admitted excise fraud (two years); Kennyford, Princess Avenue, Stainforth, Doncaster, admitted excise fraud (two years and 11 months); Watson Jnr, Runnymede Road, Doncaster, admitted excise fraud (two years and three months); Wallace, Elstead Close, Barugh Green, Barnsley, admitted excise fraud (12 months); Drummond, Burnt Tree, Tipton, admitted excise fraud (13 months, suspended for two years, 150 hours unpaid work and a four-month curfew between 8pm and 6am); Aleksandravicius, of Lithuania – formerly of Lincoln Road, Peterborough – found guilty of excise fraud (to be sentenced at Sheffield Crown Court on April 2); Seremetjevas,of Lithuania – formerly of Lincoln Road, Peterborough – admitted excise fraud (to be sentenced at Sheffield Crown Court on April 2).