Three jailed over Channel racket in cheap beer

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THREE men who ran a cross-Channel drinks racket, selling cheap French beer, wine and champagne in Britain were jailed yesterday.

They were members of a smuggling gang which made at least 42 trips on the Dover-Calais ferry in three months, Cardiff Crown Court was told.

Van-loads of cheap drink were brought into the country and then sold off illegally at Sunday markets and corner shops in South Wales. But two undercover teams of Customs officers smashed the racket as vehicles were tracked between Kent and Cardiff in an operation code-named 'Chancer'.

Eleven men admitted their part in a conspiracy to evade paying duty on beer and spirits. Roger Thomas QC, for the prosecution, said it was estimated that pounds 70,000 of unpaid duty was involved between January and April 1993 when the gang operated the ring.

Cases of beer, wine and champagne were brought to a rented warehouse in Cardiff before being distributed to traders, he said. 'It was a fairly slick operation because once the goods were in the country they were disposed of quickly.'

Jailing the three ringleaders, Judge Michael Burr said the gang had used 'an army of helpers' in an organised conspiracy to flout the law and to try to make easy money. He ordered six other men to carry out community service and conditionally discharged two others who had played lesser roles.

The organiser of the racket, Ricardo Nichols, a 29-year-old former market trader, of Wenvoe, near Cardiff, was jailed for nine months; Richard Spencer, 49, a shop owner and licensee, of Ely, Cardiff, who operated one of the main outlets for the illegal drink, was given four months, and Raymond Tout, 44, also from Ely, was jailed for three months.

Outside court, Customs investigators revealed that the gang made up to four cross-Channel trips a day, mainly to a large hyper-market near Calais.

Officers in unmarked vehicles filmed them unloading stocks of beer, wine, champagne and cigarettes in Cardiff and then regularly trailed the goods from a warehouse to markets in Caerphilly, Pontypridd and Tonypandy.

The gang went into business only three weeks after the new Customs laws came into force on 1 January 1993.

The initial tip-off about their activities came from a lorry driver at Dover who alerted Customs officers to a van-load of drink.

Mark Hampton, a senior customs investigator, said: 'We hope these jail sentences will be a big deterrent to help tackle this widespread crime which is causing concern to the retail industry.'