A lorry driver who smuggled six million cigarettes and half a ton of hand rolling tobacco hidden under rotting lettuce has been jailed for three years.
Martin Fitzpatrick (28), from Newry, Co Down was stopped by customs officers at Dover Docks in May 2008. A search of the vehicle revealed the illicit load hidden beneath pallets of rotting lettuce.
The duty evaded on the haul was almost £1 million.
Maidstone Crown Court was told that Fitzpatrick claimed his lettuce were destined for the Republic of Ireland.
However, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) investigators established that the load was not expected at the company he claimed he was to deliver to.
Fitzpatrick of Gowan Street, Newry, had collected the lettuce from Navarra, Spain and claimed to have no knowledge of the cigarettes and tobacco.
The seizure comprised of 610,000 Mayfair cigarettes, 960,000 Palace cigarettes, 200,800 Respect cigarettes and 638.40 kgs of Domingo Azul hand rolling tobacco.
He pleaded guilty at yesterday's court hearing and afterwards Malcolm Bragg, assistant director, HMRC, said: “This was a determined and deliberate attempt to smuggle a huge quantity of illicit tobacco products. Had they reached the open market, the proceeds would have been used to finance organised crime and serve to undermine the honest traders who sell duty paid cigarettes and tobacco.
“If you buy illegal cigarettes you are directly funding criminal gangs and denying public services vital funding.”
Meanwhile over 8,000 litres of laundered fuel being sold at knock-down prices were seized at two illegal filling stations in west Belfast yesterday.
HMRC officers also removed forecourt pumps and equipment at the so-called huckster sites.