Great Britain

Only 'mastermind' of tobacco smuggling gang remains at large

A FOURTH member of a Lithuanian cigarette smuggling gang is finally serving his sentence after being arrested and extradited from his home country.

Linas Bernotas, 48, was part of the five-strong group which smuggled more than 12 million illegal cigarettes, worth £3.6 million in duty and VAT, into the North-East, from 2013 to 2015.

They were caught unloading a shipment of 1.2m cigarettes, concealed inside wooden cable drum discs, at a rented unit at Pontop Business Park, Harelaw Industrial Estate, near Stanley, in April 2015.

Bernotas and several of his co-accused skipped bail and fled the UK, but all were convicted in their absence after a trial at Durham Crown Court, in May 2018.

He received a 30-month prison sentence, also in his absence.

Weeks after younger relative, Haroldas Bernotas, 25, appeared back at the court, where his two-year sentence was confirmed after his re-arrest in Lithuania, Linas Bernotas followed suit.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) investigators tracked him to his home town of Radviliskis and since his arrest, he has spent 31 days in custody during extradition proceedings.

He appeared at the court via video link from Bedford Prison two years after his conviction.

Assisted by a Lithuanian interpreter, he was told by Judge Ray Singh that the original 30-month sentence is now starting, less the 31 days he spent in custody.

Nicol Sheppard, assistant director of HMRC’s Offender Management and Enforcement Team, said: “We are determined to tackle organised crime groups and stop the misery they inflict on communities.

“In the last year alone, our enforcement action against organised crime secured and protected more than £3.1 billion and 1,195 organised criminals have been prosecuted since 2011.

“We have now succeeded in extraditing three more convicted criminals in this case and will continue to pursue the remaining gang member Dainius Pranskaitis.”

She added: “If anyone has information about his whereabouts, please report it online at GOV.UK.”

Forty-seven-year-old Pranskaitis, formerly of Muirkirk Road, London, was considered the mastermind of the operation.

Pranskaitis, who worked as a courier and film set security guard, organised the delivery, unpacking and distribution of the cigarettes across County Durham and Tyne and Wear.

He received a four-and-a-half year prison sentence in 2018.

Other member are now serving sentences ranging from 18-months to two years.

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