Ex-taxman jailed for Tesco bomb plot

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The Independent Online

A former tax inspector was jailed for six years today for a £1 million blackmail plot against supermarket chain Tesco.

Philip McHugh, of Milton Avenue, Clitheroe, Lancashire, sent 76 letters threatening to bomb Tesco stores across Britain last summer.

The 52-year-old also threatened to contaminate Tesco products if they refused to comply with his demand for money.

The judge at St Albans Crown Court said McHugh was guilty of a sustained and serious effort to extort money from the chain.

McHugh, who was addicted to online gambling and had debts of £37,000, began his campaign last May with a series of letters to Tesco offices in Dundee.

In the letters McHugh threatened to contaminate food in Tesco stores unless he was paid £100,000.

When this tactic failed, he sent a series of increasingly threatening letters to the supermarket chain's headquarters in Hertfordshire.

He demanded that Tesco transfer £200,000 into his bank account to stop him putting caustic soda in yogurt sold in the store.

When this tactic also failed, McHugh sent hoax bomb warnings to 76 Tesco supermarkets, warning of what McHugh called "Black Saturday".

He said bombs would go off at the stores on Saturday July 14.

As a result, 14 Tesco superstores including branches in Clitheroe, Port Talbot, Grimsby and Glasgow were closed, costing the supermarket chain an estimated £1.4 million in lost revenue.

Due to delays in the postal service, the remainder of the letters were not received until after the bomb threat had expired.

After the bomb hoaxes, McHugh wrote to the executives of the supermarket chain demanding £200 a day, and an overall figure of £1 million.

"I'm absolutely desperate and blood will flow if you do not cooperate," he wrote.

"And I WILL destroy your business and others will pick up your customers."

McHugh, who lived with his Russian wife and her two children, set up a bank account to receive the money, but was able to withdraw only £200 a day.

At that rate it would have taken more than 13 years to withdraw the full £1 million.

He was arrested in Clitheroe on July 23 last year after withdrawing money from the account that had been placed there as a lure.

In November last year at St Albans Crown Court he pleaded guilty to three counts of blackmail and two of carrying out a hoax bomb threat.

Passing sentence today, Judge Marie Catterson said: "Stores such as Tesco which supply the public with essential everyday goods must be protected by the law.

"This was by no means the perfect crime.

"But for all its flaws, this was a sustained and serious effort to extort a large sum of money from Tesco."

The court heard that McHugh suffered severe depression in the months leading up to his campaign, and had attempted suicide on a number of occasions.

After his arrest he told a psychiatrist who interviewed him that he saw the blackmail attempt as a "last gamble" at getting his life back on track.

His failing mental health had led to him becoming emotionally and socially isolated and increasingly detached from reality, the court heard.

Speaking after the sentence, Detective Chief Inspector Bill Jephson, of Hertfordshire Constabulary, which led the investigation, said the inquiry was a large-scale, complex and challenging operation.

"Philip McHugh was desperate man, out of work and without any means to make money," he said.

"He didn't think twice or even care about the possible consequences of his actions. He became fixated and enjoyed the thrill of blackmailing Tesco."

David Potts, Tesco's retail and logistics director, thanked the police for their efficient handling of the investigation.

"I hope this case goes some way to reassure everybody that any threat we face is taken extremely seriously and that we have robust procedures in place to ensure public and staff safety."