A fugitive lorry driver who led a failed plot to smuggle 5.7 million illicit cigarettes into the UK is being hunted by fraud investigators.
A court heard how Border Force officers found the contraband hidden beneath boxes of frozen chips inside a heavy goods vehicle being driven by Doncaster man Richard David Curtis.
The fraud was uncovered when Curtis’ lorry was stopped after arriving on a ferry from Calais at the Port of Dover on November 18 2013. Paperwork provided by Curtis gave the illusion he was carrying a cargo of chips and potato waffles, bound for a frozen food store in Warrington, Cheshire.
But during a search, officers discovered 5, 729, 900 cigarettes, on which duty of £1, 308, 321 had not been paid.
The smuggler told customs officials he had spent the weekend with an old girlfriend in Bruges, Belgium, before collecting the frozen food and travelling back to Dover via Calais. Curtis said he was unaware the lorry contained illicit cigarettes.
The 57-year-old, of Kings Wood Close, Bawtry, skipped bail ahead of a trial in which he was found guilty in his absence of fraudulent evasion of more than £1.3m in excise duty in January. He was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison but his whereabouts is currently unknown.
After failing to track Curtis down, officers from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs are now appealing for the public's help in tracing him.
Alan Tully, assistant director for HMRC's Fraud Investigation Service, said: "Richard Curtis gambled with his liberty in a brazen bid to profit from smuggling illicit cigarettes into the UK. "He lost, and now he must face up to his crime and come forward to begin his time behind bars.
"Tobacco fraud is a highly organised global crime which costs the UK £2.4 billion a year in lost duty. This is theft from the taxpayer and undermines legitimate traders who cannot compete with those who pedal illegal cigarettes.
"I urge anyone with information on Richard Curtis’ whereabouts to contact the Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000.”
A warrant has been issued for his arrest. Curtis has links to Doncaster, the wider South Yorkshire area and Nottinghamshire.