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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 17:52 GMT
Bootlegging mastermind jailed
Van loaded with drink Duty evaded on hundreds of van and lorry loads

A bootlegging baron who built up a 23m beer, spirit and cigarettes empire from behind bars has been jailed for nine years.

With the help of a lawyer, Ellis Martin, 41, held regular private meetings with gang members posing as solicitor's clerks paying legal visits.

Safe from prying eyes, the fraudster - serving a sentence for exactly the same sort of swindle - behaved like a "managing director" at a board meeting, issuing instructions to colleagues under the noses of unsuspecting jailers.

Eight others jailed

London's Southwark Crown Court heard he also spent hours on the prison phone with call cards smuggled to him by a warder bribed with cut-price cigarettes.

In just one five-month period he made more than 1,000 calls to his partners in crime, eight of whom have also received jail sentences - one suspended - totalling 32 years.

By the time the sophisticated scam was scuppered, Martin had overseen the evasion of duty on hundreds of lorry-loads of beer, wine, spirits and cigarettes, and become a millionaire many times over.

Bought own distillery

Investigators probing one of the largest frauds of its kind to have been uncovered in Britain, had to wade through a welter of front companies in Britain and Ireland as well as stacks of bogus documents complete with false customs and excise stamps.

In the process they discovered an extensive investment portfolio funded by his crimes and embracing 20 properties in Britain and Europe - including a plush penthouse apartment in Cannes - as well as a brandy distillery in the Cognac region of France.

Bank accounts and investments dotted around the world have also been tracked down.

'Managing director'

Customs men have calculated 30m effectively passed through Martin's hands and next week will be seeking a court order for the lot.

Passing sentence Judge Christopher Elwen described Martin as the "managing director" of a "sophisticated and well-organised ... massive diversion fraud".

The swindler, who comes from Southgate, north London, admitted conspiracies to defraud and launder between September 1994 and January 1997.

He showed no reaction as the judge told him: "You were plainly the brains and drive behind the whole operation."

'Master of detail'

The judge said telephone transcripts of the calls he made from prison revealed him as a person of almost "manic energy".

"You have shown yourself throughout to be a master of detail, forging documents and having a precise understanding of the customs regime you were determined to cheat, " said the judge.

The court had earlier heard the fraud the fraud took two forms - one involved "inward diversions" where lorry loads of beers, wines and spirits were exported briefly to France and Belgium to bogus customers before returning to Britain as imports.

The second involved the use of Irish-based front companies.

'Greed and genius'

Welcoming the outcome of the case, Customs and Excise spokesman Ranald Macdonald said: "Martin was one of the biggest players in the country's fastest growing crime.

"He was driven by greed and genius, and was simply not prepared to let prison bars get in the way of his crime-driven ambitions.

"But ultimately, like all high stake gamblers, blinded by misplaced convictions of superiority and invincibility, he had to lose.

"The destruction of this organisation serves as a warning to those like him who believe they can get away with flouting the system," he added.

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See also:
12 Oct 98 |  UK
Duty-free smuggling at a glance
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