AN RAF serviceman from Wearside has been jailed for helping to smuggle seven million cigarettes into Britain on military flights from the Middle East.
Corporal Stuart Helens, 31, from Sunderland, and two colleagues each pocketed £29,200 in the “professionally planned” scam.
The cigarettes were flown into bases where the bodies of troops killed in Afghanistan are repatriated.
Bristol Crown Court was told they were sold at a profit and the taxman cheated out of £1.3million.
Helens, Sergeant Stuart Walker, 43, and Senior Aircraftman Paul Garbutt, 31, were caught after six months when customs officers found 950,000 cigarettes stashed on a recently-landed plane at RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire.
Helens had arrived at the base to collect the shipment and was caught when he tried to escape.
A police probe revealed cash was being transferred to a Middle East account, where it was used to buy cut-price cigarettes in Afghanistan and Oman.
Helens, Walker and Garbutt – who have been discharged from the RAF – admitted conspiring to evade public duty.
Judge Michael Longman told them the gang they had been “motivated by greed”.
He said: “You were all serving members of the RAF at the time, all trusted implicitly to deal with air cargo, and you all breached that trust.
“I accept this behaviour was out of character for you all and you were motivated by greed.”
Helens, who now lives in Wiltshire, was given a three-year jail sentence, Garbutt, of Billingham, Cleveland, three years four months and Walker, from Basingstoke, Hants, two years.
Two women, aged 45 and 36, and Paul Garbutt’s brother Christopher, 26, got suspended jail terms after admitting taking part in the scam.
Customs investigator Adrian Farley said: “This was a blatant abuse of trust, which required careful planning to smuggle huge quantities of cigarettes into UK airbases and on to the UK’s streets.
“Not only did this criminal gang undercut honest retailers, but, ironically through their actions to evade duty, these airmen deprived the UK and their fellow servicemen and women of vital public funds.
“We will continue to work closely with the military to root out this kind of illegal activity and disrupt criminal operations wherever possible.”