Published: 12:29, 07 August 2018
| Updated: 14:54, 07 August 2018
Six men have been found guilty of trying to smuggle Albanian migrants into the UK.
In all, 18 people were rescued by Border Force officials when their boat broke down at night in the English Channel off the coast of Dymchurch on Romney Marsh back in May 2016.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) prosecuted the two British skippers, Mark Stribling and Robert Stilwell, who were sentenced to more than four years’ imprisonment.
Later, eight men were charged by the NCA with being involved in the incident.
Six have been convicted and two cleared today after the trial at the Old Bailey.
The lengthy investigation focused on two crime networks from Albania and Kent working together.
Albanian organisers Artur Nutaj and Sabah Dulaj attempted to illegally bring Albanian migrants into the UK from the north coast of France, with help from the Kent-based group, led by the Powell family.
Father Leonard and sons George and Alfie provided transport for the illegal crossings thanks to their access to a number of fast Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB) and other vessels.
NCA investigators were initially called in after a boat called the ‘Rebel’ was found by Border Force abandoned at Dymchurch beach in May 2016.
It contained life jackets and the navigation system showed it had travelled across the Channel.
It was bought by Wayne Bath, Leonard Powell and one of his sons in Norfolk for £12,500 cash on May 5.
Five days later the Rebel was used by Bath to travel over to France and collect an unknown number of migrants.
French National Police observed people being collected from hotels in Calais and being taken by taxi to a beach at Escalles, a short distance away.
The Rebel returned to Dymchurch in the early hours of May 11, where CCTV captured three vehicles, two being driven by Nutaj and Dulaj, arriving at the slipway and then leaving shortly after.
On the evening of May 26, French National Police carried out surveillance at Escalles beach when they witnessed a group of 17 people wading into the water.
Light signals were seen from a car park above the beach and a boat left the area.
The boat was identified as the Antares, which had been towed to and from Dymchurch beach that day.
It was bought for £3,775 by Albert Letchford in Hampshire just days before. Leonard Powell had also been present.
On May 28, a boat called White Scanner, acquired by George Powell for £12,500 cash, was seen being put into the water at Dymchurch.
Later that day, it travelled to France and collected a group of 18 migrants.
NCA officers then had the Kent group under surveillance and saw a white minibus parked near the shoreline in Dymchurch, seemingly ready to collect those on board.
But on its return journey, the White Scanner got into difficulties in poor weather and was rescued by a coastguard helicopter, a Border Force cutter and the RNLI approximately five miles of the coast.
Border Force officer Gareth Leadbetter was later awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Bravery for his role in the rescue.
The gang appeared to have attempted their own rescue operation with the Antares, but abandoned the boat upon seeing law enforcement.
The two-man crew of the White Scanner, Stribling and Stilwell were later convicted and jailed.
But in July the group obtained another larger boat, known as the Boat With No Name for £3,000.
NCA officers planted a listening device on the vessel and heard evidence of the preparation for another attempted migrant run.
On July 25, the boat left Ramsgate but hit rough seas and decided to turn back.
The following night it set off again, narrowly avoiding a fishing vessel, and came within 100m of a large cargo ship and travelled against the flow of traffic in the busy shipping lane.
It ran out of fuel and made a ‘mayday’ call. It was found by a Border Force Cutter adrift, before being towed back to shore by the RNLI.
On August 13 2016, NCA officers observed Leonard and George Powell meet Sabah Dulaj in a pub car park who then travelled together to Sheerness and bought a jet ski, believed to be for the purpose of transporting migrants from France to the UK.
All three were arrested.
The same day Kent Police raided the Powell’s farm in Farningham, seizing drugs, cutting agents and stolen vehicles.
The other gang members were arrested over the coming weeks and charged with conspiring to facilitate a breach of immigration law.
NCA regional head of investigations Brendan Foreman said: "These men were involved in a staggeringly reckless plot to bring migrants to the UK illegally and in a highly dangerous manner.
"They were prepared to risk lives for the sake of profit, treating people as a commodity to ship across the world’s busiest shipping lane using small boats and even a jet ski.
"Were it not for the intervention of the NCA, Border Force and other agencies involved in this operation, including the Coastguard and RNLI, I am certain there would have been tragic consequences.
"In disrupting and dismantling this people smuggling network we have not only protected the security and the integrity of the UK border, but also saved lives."
Mike Stepney, Border Force deputy chief operating officer, said: "These convictions are another example of the effectiveness of our multi-agency approach to securing the UK's border and territorial waters.
"By collaborating with the NCA, our Home Office colleagues in Immigration Enforcement, and other partners we have brought a significant organised people smuggling gang to justice – and saved lives in the process.
"Working together, we will continue to do all we can to put those involved in people smuggling behind bars.”
"They were prepared to risk lives for the sake of profit, treating people as a commodity to ship across the world’s busiest shipping lane using small boats and even a jet ski..." - Brendan Foreman, NCA
As a result of this NCA investigation, codenamed Operation Sugate, a range of other offending including drug and vehicle crime was also identified involving associates of the group and other family members. Working with Kent Police, the NCA significantly disrupted this, and a number of people were arrested and later convicted.
Mr Foreman added: "The public can be assured that in dismantling this criminal organisation we haven’t just stopped a gang of people smugglers.
"With the help of Kent Police and other partners, I believe we have also protected the people of Kent from a range of other offending associated with them including drug dealing and vehicle crime.
"This demonstrates that by targeting these crime groups the NCA can have an impact at a community level, as well as at a national and international one."
On the May 15 this year, George Powell, 42, from Hilltop Farm, Farningham, entered a guilty plea at the Central Criminal Court for his involvement, but the remaining members of the group pleaded not guilty and stood trial at the Old Bailey.
The men found guilty today were Leonard Powell, 66, also from Hilltop Farm, Farningham, Alfie Powell, 39, from Button Lane, Swanley, Wayne Bath, 39, from Sea Approach in Warden and Albert Letchford, 42, from Rochester Road, Gravesend.
Albanian nationals Sabah Dulaj, 24, of Hospital Way, London and Artur Nutaj, 39, of Wheatley Gardens, London were also convicted.
They will all be sentenced alongside George Powell on Friday, September 21.
Alan Viles from Folkestone and Francis Wade from Rochester were cleared.