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In Pictures: Tax fraudsters' life of opulence built on greed and secrecy

By Deborah McAleese

The trail that led to the discovery of the biggest ever tax fraud in Northern Ireland began in Italy with the detection of a European cigarette smuggling gang.

Unknown to Patrick Small, known as Gerry, and his wife Mary, the gang had used their business address, Greystone Builders in Co Tyrone, as a consignee for a shipment of illegal tobacco.

When the gang was detected and arrested in Italy the Italian authorities tipped off Customs and Revenue officials that the container of cigarettes was addressed to the Smalls.

Investigators then launched a probe into the husband and wife’s finances, and while no connection with the cigarette smuggling was discovered, questions immediately arose over their financial status.

For five years the couple had been submitting tax returns for an average annual income of £27,000, but had somehow been able to spend £1.5m building a luxury mansion at Cullenramer Road in Dungannon.

The property, where the couple still reside, is surrounded by a Donegal stone wall which cost £100,000 in labour alone to build, has a solid oak staircase that cost £35,000 and marble floors throughout.

Another expensively finished bungalow owned by the Smalls was simply used as a storage space for tens of thousands of pounds of antiques and £60,000 worth of jewellry.

In a locked room at the bungalow HMRC investigators discovered a safe packed full with cash totalling £420,000.

Further investigations found that the couple owned at least 20 properties across Northern Ireland, holiday homes in Spain and Donegal, and had at least £2m in off-shore accounts in the Isle of Man.

The couple built up their portfolio of properties and assets by siphoning off millions of pounds from their business into offshore accounts and laundering money through the cash purchase of properties, antiques and jewellery.

It was not a highly complex fraud; they simply walked into local banks with cheques received from their business customers, sometimes worth tens of thousands of pounds, and cashed them — contrary to normal banking practice — suppressing any audit trail.

The cash was then either stashed away in safes hidden throughout their homes, used to purchase further assets such as property, antiques or jewellry, or personally transported to their offshore accounts on the Isle of Man.

The Smalls were arrested in September 2005 and later charged with numerous offences including cheating the public revenue and false accounting.

Despite this, they still attempted to maintain a facade as pillars of the community and in 2007 audaciously staged an open day at their new mansion for their neighbours — even inviting the local newspaper to take photographs of the event.

One photograph shows the couple posing proudly outside the house with their three children.

“This is a story of greed. These people were ripping off the tax system that everyone else has to pay for,” said John Whiting, HMRC assistant director of criminal investigations.

“They came to our attention after the detection of a shipment of illegal cigarettes. We started looking at their finances and it seems they had too much money. That is when we discovered the tax crime — fortunately for us, unfortunately for them.

“Our attention would have been attracted to them down the line, so let’s just say the investigation started a bit earlier than it might have done had it not been for the cigarette smuggling.”

Despite not being the most sophisticated of frauds, the couple still made millions of pounds from dodging tax, but their greed has finally caught up with them.

HM Customs and Revenue swooped on the Small’s Dungannon mansion just weeks before it was completed and successfully applied for a court order to freeze all their assets.

The only question that remains therefore is how were the Smalls able to complete their £1.5m mansion after the raid if all their assets had been effectively frozen?

The couple may now be facing a civil case to answer that question.

Belfast Telegraph

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