`Beer baron' is guilty of huge bootleg scam

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The Independent Online
A "beer baron" was found guilty yesterday of masterminding Britain's biggest cross-Channel bootlegging operation.

Ellis Martin, who faces up to 14 years in jail, used a front company and thousands of pages of bogus paperwork to flood Britain with nearly nine million cans of "super strength" lager.

The crooked businessman kept hundreds of cash and carry outlets stocked with the beer for months, Southwark Crown Court was told. Prosecution counsel calculated that if the 350,000 crates of beer involved were stacked on top of one another they would create a "39 mile high hangover".

The court was told Martin had so much money left over after paying cash for a pounds 270,000 home and two Mercedes convertibles that he set up a property company to "clean up" the rest of his ill-gotten gains.

The jury, who spent 23 hours over five days considering the evidence, convicted Martin, 37, of Southgate, north London, of five charges of cheating Customs & Excise out of pounds 7.75m duty and VAT between November 1993 and June 1994.

The managing director of a bonded warehouse, James White, 49, of High Halstow, Kent, was found guilty of two charges of evading duty.

Martin's girlfriend and assistant Julie Court, 27, and his chief salesman, Sukvinder Singh, 25, were cleared of two charges of evading duty.

Oliver Sells QC, for the prosecution, told the jury during the two and a half month trial that Martin was the "mastermind".White, he said, provided reams of bogus paperwork for the swindle which claimed hundreds of thousands of cases of Carlsberg special brew, Tennents Extra, Kestrel super and Hofmeister were destined for Russia, Nigeria and Gibraltar.

Mr Sells said the fraud was made possible by the easing of customs checks after the 1992 abolition of EU border controls.

The first part of the seven-month operation involved collecting 27 lorry loads of duty free beer from a bonded warehouse in Walsall, West Midlands, by claiming it was to be exported. But instead of taking it to a storage facility managed by White in Kent, it was sold directly to shopkeepers.

Then, while awaiting sentence for a similar pounds 180,000 VAT and duty swindle for which he later received community sentence, Martin launched the second stage of the lucrative operation. This time he shipped 230 lorry loads of beer to Calais where he had set up a front company, and then re-exported it back to Britain to sell on the open market.

Mr Sells said Martin charged purchasers VAT and the 100 per cent duty that goes with high strength beers. He used the cash to buy three homes, a wine bar and another commercial property for a total of pounds 1m.

He was arrested after a three-month surveillance operation on both sides of the Channel.

Sentence was adjourned and both men were remanded in custody.

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