Brewery boss jailed over plot to poison rival's cider

A brewery director who masterminded a "wicked and evil" plot to contaminate a rival's cider was jailed for 18 months yesterday.

Michael Hancocks was so furious when he lost a big contract to one of the country's best-known cider companies, HP Bulmer, that he devised a plan to tamper with its drinks.

The 64-year-old managing director recruited a chemist to produce a yeast-based bacteria and hired a factory worker on the inside. The plan was to introduce the yeast into the bottles, producing "snowflakes" in the cider that could cause nausea and diarrhoea.

But the scheme collapsed when the worker - Russell Jordan - had a change of heart and called the police.

Hancocks was jailed yesterday after admitting a charge of conspiracy to defraud at an earlier hearing. Sentencing him at Bristol Crown Court, Judge John Foley said: "This was a wicked and evil agreement ... It merits an immediate custodial sentence."

The court heard there had been long-running animosity between Hancocks' firm, Aston Manor Brewery in Birmingham, and Bulmers, which produces Woodpecker, Strongbow and Scrumpy Jack at its Hereford factory.

The rivalry came to a head in the summer of 2001 when both firms were bidding for a lucrative contract with Booker's Cash and Carry. Bulmers walked away with the most profitable share - leaving Aston Manor Brewery in commercial difficulty.

Hancocks, from Hereford, approached Paul Harris, 41, his daughter's boyfriend, to act as his middle man. They recruited Richard Gay, 50, a former chemist at Aston Manor, to create the contaminant.

Harris, a hygiene operator at Sun Valley Foods in Hereford, then asked Mr Jordan - a forklift truck driver at Bulmers - to administer the poison on the promise of £16,000.

Gay created the samples and put them in soft drink bottles. The first consignment of eight bottles was delivered to Mr Jordan in October 2001 but, having realised the seriousness of the situation, he pocketed the £1,000 advance, poured the liquid away and told the police.

Two more consignments were delivered - one in November 2001, the other in February 2002 - both of which Mr Jordan handed to the police. With the evidence in place, they arrested Hancocks, Gay and Harris on 4 April last year.

Hancocks insisted the substance would have caused no discomfort to the public and that he expected it to be detected by Bulmers workers. The plot was "nothing more than a gesture of defiance", he said in his defence.

Harris, 41, also from Hereford, pleaded guilty in July last year to a charge of conspiracy to contaminate the products of Bulmers with intent to cause economic loss and was jailed for 15 months yesterday.

Gay, of Tysley, Birmingham, admitted a charge of possessing articles with the view to causing an offence. He is due to be sentenced today.