Published: 09:00, 29 July 2016
| Updated: 09:50, 29 July 2016
Two men have been jailed after they were caught smuggling migrants into the country on a boat that capsized when it ran out of fuel with 18 Albanians on board off the Kent coast.
Former judo champion Robert Stilwell, of Stanley Close, Greenhithe, was sentenced to four years and four months and Mark Stribling, of Hilltop Farm, Farningham, near Swanley, to four years and eight months.
Stilwell, 33, who represented Great Britain and held European and Commonwealth titles, and Stribling, 35, admitted conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration of a member state.
Judge Jeremy Carey told them: “This case shows the best and the worst of human characteristics. On the part of the rescue services...a real and conspicuous devotion to duty and a considerable risk to themselves.
“On your part greed, recklessness and deceit in a desire to get easy money. For easy money it was for what seemed to be a short trip in a vessel taking no more than half an hour to an hour.”
Neil Guest, for Stribling, said the pleas were tendered on the basis they were “hired boatmen and not hierarchy”.
Video footage from a sea rescue helicopter showed the distressed state of the 15 men, one woman and two children on board, who paid 6,000 Euros each to come to the UK.
Stilwell and Stribling, who claimed they were to be paid £2,000 each for the venture, were arrested after the inflatable boat got into difficulties off the coast of Dymchurch just before midnight on Saturday, May 28.
A Border Force cutter on patrol in the Channel received reports of suspicious activity relating to a small craft.
But as they approached with HM Coastguard the cutter and coastguard received a distress call from the same vessel.
"This was a particularly callous attempt to smuggle people into the UK." Dave Fairclough, Immigration Enforcement Criminal Investigations team
Lifeboat and coastguard crews rushed to the scene after reports the rigid-hulled boat had been spotted shortly before midnight and was taking on water.
A helicopter was scrambled and the migrants were eventually found and taken ashore to Dover and into the custody of the UK Border Force.
Prosecutor Nina Ellin said the commander of the Border Force cutter HMC Valiant had received messages asking him to go to Dymchurch and search for a vessel containing immigrants.
Shortly before 1am on May 29, the inflatable boat was located. It was taking on water and the immigrants on board were in a distressed state.
Littlestone and Dungeness lifeboats went to the scene about 1.5 miles from the shore along with a search and rescue helicopter.
Footage from the helicopter showed two migrants desperately trying to bail out water from the rib in difficult sea conditions.
Both Stilwell and Stribling were wearing life jackets, but the migrants had none.
Miss Ellin said a voice was heard saying they had rescued those on board while out fishing.
Judge Carey told Stilwell and Stribling: “You had something which would save you in the event of disaster. You had life jackets. They were not provided with any such safety.
“They were desperate. You knew that because they were illegal entrants to this country.
“There is nothing I have read to indicate you were expressing concern about the number of people getting into the vessel.
“The footage from the helicopter shows it was grossly overladen - absolutely full of human beings. They at that stage were in a desperate state for fear of drowning.
“That you had no experience or very limited experience of a seafaring kind is not a mitigating feature but in my judgement an aggravating one since it shows just how much at risk those people were.
“In the event there was a rescue and those who were rescued should be as grateful, as you should be, to those who came to your aid.
“Tragedy was avoided by a whisker. In the middle were the Albanians who were plainly in great fear in their desperate state.
“But you were very significant players in the operation and will be sentenced accordingly,” he added.
Prison sentences in double figures, he said, were reserved for those convicted of multiple offences and found to be principals in such enterprises.
“But those who play a significant role such as you did with serious aggravating features I have stressed must expect very heavy sentences."
Investigators hope the sentence will act as a warning to other smugglers.
Dave Fairclough, from the Immigration Enforcement Criminal Investigations team which led the investigation, said: “This was a particularly callous attempt to smuggle people into the UK.
“We often talk about people smugglers treating individuals as commodities. To my mind, that is exactly how Stilwell and Stribling regarded their passengers.
"They were not human beings, they were cargo, and as such did not merit life jackets for a dangerous night crossing, in poor conditions of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
“The sentences handed out today should serve as a warning to anyone tempted to get involved with this kind of criminality.
"Working closely with Border Force colleagues we will catch you, and you will face imprisonment.”
Kate Hunter, for Stilwell, said her client and Stribling were “hired hands” and had no influence on those above them in the chain.
They believed they would only be picking up adult men, she said.
Payment to be received “on completion” was their motivation. The boat had been provided by others.
“Mr Stilwell described going into shock when realising the seriousness of the situation he found himself in,” said Miss Hunter.
“He has been sea fishing but has no experience in sailing or piloting a boat. It didn’t cross his mind he could be presented with this sort of situation.
“He explained his actions on that occasion are now haunting him. He feels sick about that situation. He never wanted any person to come to harm.”
Stilwell was a keen sportsman but suffered a crushed vertebrae at the age of 21 and could not maintain the high standard he had achieved in judo.
As a result, he had money difficulties. He worked part-time with his mother in Covent Garden.
“He states this is out of character for him and a stupid thing for him to do. He was desperate to help his family.
“He does show remorse for what he has done. He finds himself being a regular person with a regular life now being incarcerated into custody.”
Neil Guest, for Stribling, said the two men, who knew each other from school, were “in it together from the outset”.
“It is equally clear they were not the lynch pins in this particular exercise,” he said. “They were not the brains behind it in any shape or form.
“They were hired for the sum of £2,000 to make this particular crossing. Bearing in mind the danger caused to others that seems an awfully paltry sum.”
When Judge Carey questioned the amount to be paid, Mr Guest said Stribling had one young child and another on the way and £2,000 was, therefore, “salvation”.
Stribling had no sailing talent, he said, and although it was a professional enterprise they managed to run out of fuel off the coast.
He expected only 10 people to board the boat.
“It is clear someone is making a huge profit here,” said Mr Guest. “The people who do the dirty work don’t make anything like the percentage of those in the hierarchy.
“The enormity of what he had done struck him. He had bitten off more than he could chew. He was quite simply - no pun intended - out of his depth.
“He has not got a maritime background - he hails from Swanley. The only way this vessel was navigated was by GPS.”
Anyone with information about suspected immigration abuse can contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 anonymously or visit www.crimestoppers-uk.org.
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