SEVEN men who were involved in an £8m shares fraud have been sentenced to a total of nearly 40 years in jail.

Dennis Potter, the 72-year-old former chief executive of Newton Aycliffe based Worldwide Bio Refineries (WBR), which was a front for an investment scam, received the longest sentence – seven years.

Director and founder Redmond “Ray” Johnson, 67, of Washington, Wearside, who helped the prosecution in the case at Ipswich Crown Court, was given three years.

Both Potter, who lives in Singapore, and Johnson were disqualified from acting as company directors for 12 years.

Another five defendants who sold shares in the company from so-called “boiler rooms” in Spain were also sentenced following a lengthy trial.

Steven John Murphy, 35, and Greg Pearson, 38, both of Marbella, Spain, and Paul Daniel Murphy, 38, of Hertfordshire, each received six year jail sentences.

Lee Eliot Homan, 39, also of Hertfordshire, was jailed for five years, six months. Peter Bibby, 44, of South London, who had previously absconded, was sentenced in his absence to six years in prison. A court warrant is out for his arrest.

The boiler room operatives were disqualified from being company directors for six years.

All the defendants had denied, but were convicted of, conspiring to defraud investors, except Johnson, who admitted the charge.

WBR was said to be investing in five biofuel plants – the process by which vegetable oil is turned to diesel – and its backers claimed it was worth up to £110m.

But the reality was it was practically worthless and produced virtually no output. Investors, many elderly people among them, spent £8m on shares, believing – wrongly – the company was about to float on the Stock Exchange.

It later went into liquidation. It is hoped future confiscation proceedings could claw back some of the lost money.

Judge Rupert Overbury praised the “hard work and professionalism” of those who took part in the investigation, which was led by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

He said: “This was a well planned, sophisticated, and well executed fraud dressed up in the language of legitimate business.

“The actions of the directors in particular amount to a breach of trust of the investors.

They had a long lasting effect on the victims who lost their savings.”

SFO director Richard Alderman welcomed the sentences passed which he said “reflected the callous way the criminals preyed on their victims.