Couple accused of smuggling 857,000 cigarettes

An engaged couple smuggled 857,000 cigarettes from Thailand, hidden under religious statues and other artefacts, a court heard today.

Nicola Stretton, 34, arranged for the cigarettes to be smuggled into the UK while her fiancee John Shepherd shipped them from Thailand concealed under items including Buddha statues and plastic flowers, jurors were told.

John Shepherd was due to appear in court, but he fled to Thailand and his whereabouts was not known by the prosecution, the court heard.

Customs and Excise officers in Southampton discovered 450,000 counterfeit Marlboro cigarettes, 260,000 L&M Filter cigarettes and 147,000 L&M Lights hidden under false cardboard bottoms in the four cases stored in two shipping containers, Cardiff Crown Court heard.

Stretton, of Wessington Drive, Hereford, was living in the Welsh capital when she arranged for the cigarettes to be smuggled into the country, avoiding duty of £144,570. If the cigarettes had been sold legally they would have been subject to VAT totalling £18,857, the jury heard.

Carl Harrison, prosecuting, told the court Stretton used the trading name of Finishing Touches to "give the shipment the facade of legitimacy" but was receiving text messages from Shepherd in Thailand, talking about the kind of profit they would make from smuggling cigarettes.

One message, on a mobile phone seized after customs discovered the shipment, said they would make "three or four grand in December."

Mr Harrison told the jury: "John Shepherd is reporting back to Nicola Stretton about possible shipments and profits they could make."

When Stretton was arrested she said she had no idea there were cigarettes in the boxes and she believed they were importing Thai artefacts to sell at a market stall and on eBay to raise money for their wedding the following year.

She said the couple had previously visited the country on holiday and decided to import the items after seeing how cheap they were, the court heard.

When a customs officer told her how much duty was due on the shipment she said she was shocked because she was only expecting to make a payment of £200 for the statues, masks and flowers worth about £2,300, the barrister said.

When questioned about why there was just one stock list for Finishing Touches on a seized laptop, she said all the information was in her head, Mr Harrison told jurors.

He added: "There would be considerable costs and expenses - flying to Thailand, shipment costs, handling fees, storage fees. There is no plan for how this venture was to make money, no market research.

"There is no business plan because it was not needed, it was not a real business."

He said their finances were to come from the smuggling of cigarettes and that is why the text message talked of making "£3-4,000 in December".

Stretton pleaded not guilty to one count of the fraudulent aversion of duty payable on the importation of goods on December 5, 2008.

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