Failed immigrants smuggling bid 'was whisker away from tragedy'
Two men, whose attempt to smuggle Albanian immigrants into the UK was a "whisker" away from tragedy when their boat started sinking, have been jailed.
Robert Stilwell, 33, and Mark Stribling, 35, both admitted breaching immigration law by illegally attempting to help 18 migrants into the country on a boat that had to be rescued in the English Channel.
Stilwell, who won Commonwealth gold in judo in 2000, and his school friend Stribling were to be paid £2,000 each to make the journey to the south of Calais and transport the migrants - who had paid 6,000 euro (£5,061) each for the crossing, Maidstone Crown Court heard.
The migrants - including 15 men, one woman and two children - had waded into the water before climbing aboard the white rigid-hulled inflatable boat (Rhib) on the evening of May 28 this year.
They had to be rescued by the Coastguard and the crew of HMC Valiant in the early hours of May 29 after their boat lost power one-and-a-half miles from shore.
Stribling, of Hilltop Farm, Farningham, near Swanley in Kent, was jailed for four years and eight months and Stilwell, of Stanley Close, Greenhithe, was sentenced to four years and four months in prison.
Stilwell, who the court heard only worked part time since suffering a career-ending injury, appeared stunned by the sentence and mouthed "tell them I love them" as he was sent down, while Stribling smirked.
In sentencing, Judge Jeremy Carey said: "This case shows the best and the worst of human characteristics.
"On the part of the rescue services ... A real and conspicuous devotion to duty and at considerable risk to themselves.
"On your part greed, recklessness and deceit and the desire to get easy money.
"In the event there was a rescue and those who were rescued should be very grateful, as you should be to those who came to your aid.
"A tragedy was averted by a whisker."
The court heard that the two men, who both had criminal records, had been wearing all-weather clothing and life jackets on board.
The boat lost power shortly after they set off from France and had been drifting for almost three hours, taking on water.
A video from the search and rescue helicopter played to the court showed a migrant using a small container to try to bail out the boat, while Stribling could be seen remonstrating with other migrants.
Judge Carey said aggravating factors included the pair's lack of seafaring ability, as well as the risk posed to the rescue services and the exploitation of the migrants.
He added: "The fact that they were without any protection against the risk of drowning and the fact that you were clearly doing this for no other reason than for financial gain.
"You had something which would save you in the event of a disaster - you had life jackets. They were not provided with any such safety.
"I referred to the best and worst of human characteristics - in the middle were the migrants, who were plainly in great fear in their desperate state."
He also dismissed the claim that they were to be paid £2,000 as "inconceivable".
He said: "Particularly as you are both men well-versed in criminal activity that you would have accepted such low return for what was a risky undertaking."
When lifeboat crews arrived, the woman migrant was "showing signs of hypothermia", prosecutor Nina Ellin said.
Her husband told police he had been told by another migrant that there had been threats "the boat would be punctured" with scissors if they alerted authorities, while the woman said she had been told of threats they would be "thrown into the sea".
The pair feared for their lives, and Ms Ellin said: "They believe if they had been 10 more minutes on that boat they would have died."
The Coastguard was only alerted because of phone calls the migrants made to family members.
It took four return trips to the HMC Valiant, a Border Force cutter ship, to remove all the migrants and the defendants from the rhib, taking a total of an hour and a half.
Ms Ellin said rescuers overheard one of the defendants - the only English speakers on board - claim they had been fishing and had rescued the migrants, while the other was said to have shouted that the boat had run out of fuel as they did so.
Once the pair arrived back at Dover, they appeared in "good spirits" and joked about the strength of the tea and coffee.
In interview, Ms Ellin said Stilwell told police: "Yes, they were in the water but he did not want to elaborate further on this as the officers would twist everything he said."
Both men pleaded guilty on the basis they were the boatmen and not part of the hierarchy of the smuggling operation.
Kate Hunter, defending Stilwell, said the father-of-one was "remorseful".
She added: "He is a keen judo sportsman, he started at the age of five and carried on into adulthood. Unfortunately at 21, he had a severe injury, which caused him crushed vertebrae and unfortunately he could not keep up with the high standard he had reached.
"As a result of that, money difficulties came into Mr Stilwell's life.
"He had a part time job. He had not left school with many qualifications and suffered from dyslexia."
His mother was ill with thrombosis and his father had retired, meaning the family struggled to pay their bills and so Stilwell took the offer of cash to transport the migrants, Ms Hunter said.
Neil Guest, defending Stribling, said his client was unemployed and had one five-year-old child and another child on the way with his girlfriend of 35 years.
Mr Guest said: "£2,000 to him was some degree of salvation."
He added Stribling had no sailing or boating experience.
"He was simply, no pun intended, out of his depth," Mr Guest said.
"He has not got a maritime background at all - he hails from Swanley.
"It does not take a great deal of seamanship to do what has been done."
Stribling had previously been jailed for five years for robbery and later for two years in March 2015 for drugs offences.
Stilwell had a string of convictions for offences such as theft and criminal damage, none of which carried a custodial sentence.
Reacting to the sentence, Assistant Director Dave Fairclough, from the Immigration Enforcement Criminal Investigations team, said the smuggling attempt was "callous".
"We often talk about people smugglers treating individuals as commodities," he said.
"To my mind, that is exactly how Stilwell and Stribling regarded their passengers. They were not human beings, they were cargo, and as such did not merit life jackets for a dangerous night crossing, in poor conditions of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
"The sentences handed out today should serve as a warning to anyone tempted to get involved with this kind of criminality. Working closely with Border Force colleagues we will catch you, and you will face imprisonment."