Bungling people-smugglers behind a hare-brained scheme to bring migrants across the English Channel on jet skis are facing jail.
At least 18 people were transported from near Calais to Dymchurch in Kent in dangerously overcrowded inflatable boats designed for six.
When the rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs) got into trouble, ran out of fuel and had to be rescued, the gang turned to the alternative of a three-person jet ski.
Had they not been stopped by a National Crime Agency-led surveillance operation, they would have been the first to have tried to run migrants across the world’s busiest shipping route on jet skis.
Following an Old Bailey trial, six men from the Kent-based transport gang and their Albanian “travel agents” were convicted of people-smuggling.
The court heard that migrants, including men, women and children, were charged up to £6,000 each to journey across the English Channel.
The criminals had little boating experience or knowledge of the danger they were exposing the men, women and children to.
They are believed to have carried out one successful trip in an RHIB called Rebel.
It was found abandoned on the beach at Dymchurch with children’s life jackets on board on May 11 2016.
When border officials went to investigate, the professed owner, Wayne Bath, claimed to have been out “night fishing” when he experienced engine trouble.
On May 26, French police spotted a group of people signalling a boat in the water off Cran d’Escalles beach near Calais.
The migrants began to wade out to meet it, but the Antares RHIB left after a parked car signalled using its headlights.
Prosecutor Timothy Probert-Wood QC told jurors they were “clearly not there for a day on the beach”.
Two days later, the gang tried again with the newly acquired White Scanner RHIB, under the watch of NCA agents.
The White Scanner picked up 18 migrants from France – including two children aged 16 and 17 and a woman.
On the return journey, they ran out of fuel and the migrants were forced to start baling out as it flooded with sea water.
The terrified group sent desperate text messages, with one saying: “We are in England, tell police, we are drowning.”
The Coastguard helicopter and RNLI launched a rescue operation and found the inflatable vessel.
One woman was suffering from hypothermia and was wrapped in a blanket in an attempt to warm her up.
The Old Bailey heard that the Antares had tried to rescue its sister boat but was later found abandoned out to sea.
A Mitsubishi Shogun used to tow it had been abandoned and set on fire.
In July 2016, the White Scanner two-man crew of Mark Stribling, 35, from Farningham, Kent, and Robert Stilwell, 33, from Dartford, Kent, were jailed.
Undeterred, the gang bought another larger boat from Southampton – referred to as The Boat With No Name.
NCA operatives planted a bug on the boat to listen in as the gang plotted their next migrant run.
On July 25, Albert Letchford took out the Boat With No Name but ran into rough sea and turned back.
On August 13, the NCA secretly filmed a meeting of the Kent gang meeting their Albanian partners in a pub car park.
They went together to buy a jet ski with a view to using it to transport migrants from France to Britain.
The NCA moved in to arrest them over safety fears if the jet ski was brought into use.
The ringleaders were 40-stone Leonard Powell, from Dartford, and his son Alfie, 39, of no fixed address.
Another son, George Powell, had already admitted his part in the conspiracy.
Following a trial, Leonard and Alfie Powell were found guilty of conspiring to breach immigration law along with Wayne Bath, 38, of Sheerness, Kent; Sabah Dulaj, 23, of no fixed address; Albert Letchford, 42, of Dartford; and Arthur Nutaj, 39, of north London.
Alan Viles, 28, of Folkestone, Kent; Francis Wade, 59, of Rochester, Kent had denied having anything to do with the plot and were found not guilty after a jury deliberated for 29 hours
NCA senior investigator Mark McCormack said the smuggling gang was dangerously incompetent.
He said: “We have people controlling vessels with no maritime experience, no sailing experience, who have completed very rudimentary courses of one or two days, trying to cross this busy shipping channel at night in a small vessel not utilising lights or radar.
“So it increases the risk of migrants coming over and it puts their lives at real risk, which is why we at the NCA were trying to stop those people.”
During the surveillance, one gang member was seen putting in the wrong sat nav code, using the postcode for France instead.
Mr McCormack said: “That just shows the level of incompetency of the crime group.
“When the Boat With No Name crossed the English Channel, a number of times it crossed the traffic, it did circular pirouettes and was under the bow of a number of container ships.
“They were rescued in the vicinity of a large container ship that was bearing in on it.”
He cast doubt on the jet ski plan, saying: “A three-person jet ski does have a range of 60 miles but it is the ability to get over there and potentially refuel and come back and cross in that type of vessel in the busiest shipping channel in the world.”
While jet skis have been used to smuggle drugs and contraband from North Africa to Spain or Gibraltar, it has never before been attempted in the English Channel.
NCA regional head of investigations Brendan Foreman said: “These men were involved in a staggeringly reckless plot to bring migrants to the UK illegally and in a highly dangerous manner.
“They were prepared to risk lives for the sake of profit, treating people as a commodity to ship across the world’s busiest shipping lane using small boats and even a jet ski.
“Were it not for the intervention of the NCA, Border Force and other agencies involved in this operation, including the Coastguard and RNLI, I am certain there would have been tragic consequences.”
Judge Mark Dennis QC adjourned sentencing until a date to be fixed.