A gang of five arms dealers who smuggled Britain’s largest single importation of automatic firearms were jailed for more than 90 years today (Thurs).
Harry Shilling, 26, and Michael Defraine, 30, used a specially adapted boat to import AK-47 type assault rifles similar to those used in the Paris terror attacks into a quiet Kent marina.
Armed police swooped after the Albernina docked in Kent last August with its ‘evil cargo’ of 22 VZ-58 assault rifles, nine Skorpion sub-machine guns, two silencers and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
The guns were bought in the Balkans and Eastern Europe from the same source which supplied some of the weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the terror attack that killed 130 in the French capital last November.
The weapons were mostly deactivated weapons used by the Czech military during the cold war, but were easily returned to their original state by eastern European gangs.
Bought for as little as £38 each, the gang hoped to make up to £250,000 selling them to criminals, but the large, rapid-fire weapons would have been more useful to terrorists.
Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson QC said the machine guns were ‘more than just trophies’ and ‘capable of unleashing carnage on a terrifying scale’.
He added that the weapons could easily have fallen into terrorists’ hands.
Shilling – likened to fictional underworld boss Keyser Söze from the Usual Suspects movie – masterminded the operation.
Defraine arranged the transportation, while Shilling’s loyal lieutenant Richard Rye, 24, acted as a go-between with those who would do the legwork needed to bring in the guns.
The boat’s skipper father-of-nine David Payne, 43, recruited others including Christopher Owen, 30, to buy and prepare the vessel.
The weapons were shipped in from Boulogne, in northern France, on board the Albernina to the river Medway and unloaded at Cuxton Marina, near Rochester.
Payne, Rye and Owen pleaded guilty to the plot and were jailed alongside Shilling and Defraine who were convicted after a seven week trial at the Old Bailey, costing the taxpayer at least £5m.
Payne’s partner Jennifer Arthy, 42, and his best friend John Smale, 58, were accused of helping buy and refit the boat but they were cleared of involvement in the plot.
Judge Michael Topolski QC said: ‘It has been said that it cannot be exaggerated that guns kill, maim, terrorise and that why criminals want them.
‘That’s why they use them, and that’s why they organise their supply, importation and distribution of firearms and their possession presents an immediate risk to life such that the punishment for the supply must reflect these terrible potential consequences.’
He added: ‘This was a very carefully planned and well research operation, it was undertaken with a significant degree of care and sophistication.
‘The firearms were genuine, fully automatic and in good working condition, they were of a high calibre, some were loaded with live rounds and ready to be fired.
‘The ammunition was specialised in nature, all had folding stocks and the Skorpion submachine guns were easy to conceal. None of the weapons had any lawful use.’
Jailing Shilling for 30 years with an extended licence period of five years, he said: ‘I’m entirely satisfied that you were the man in charge of this whole plan, while funding this sophisticated operation.’
Defraine was jailed for 27 years with an extended licence period of five years, while Payne was handed 14 years and three months, also with an extended license period of five years.
The three ringleaders were told they must serve at least two thirds of their sentence in custody.
Owen was given a sentence of five years and four months, after claiming he only helped unload and conceal the weapons.
Arthy returned to court today to see Payne be sentenced along with two of his daughters, and wept as his sentence was read out.
Throughout the trial the defendants were whisked in and out of the Old Bailey in a police convoy as helicopters flew overhead and armed officers patrolled the streets.
The bill for the armed escort alone came to £720,000.
Armed police were permitted inside the famous building for the first time since 2008 when the gang behind the £53m Securitas depot heist in Tonbridge stood trial.
Jurors were kept in complete isolation and there was even a line of police tape on the public gallery to stop anyone peering over to see who they were.
National Crime Agency expert Neil Wildman explained such guns are cheap, easily obtained and readily brought across Europe’s boarders to countries like France.
Assault rifles used by terrorists to create havoc in the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Paris massacre are believed to have followed the same path.
The guns are less popular among criminals and drug dealers because they are large and difficult to conceal.
Until now, the weapons have rarely been seen in the UK, where they could be sold for up to £8,000 each because of the difficulty of bringing them across the channel.
The ‘devastating’ smaller Uzi-like weapons are more popular among gangs for their ease of concealment and perception as a status symbol among criminals.
Shilling and Rye made funds available to Payne and Arthy for them to buy the Albernina for £24,500 on 20 June last year from Highway Marine Ltd, in Sandwich, Kent.
Payne has been in a relationship with Arthy for eight years and they lived on a boat called ‘the Ali Kat’ in Cuxton Marina.
Shilling and Defraine were involved in regular travel on the continent in the weeks leading up to the importation.
Although they had used burner mobile phones, the locations of their clandestine meetings with arms dealers were all stored in Shilling’s satnav.
Mr Atkinson said that after the boat docked on 10 August last year, Shilling sent a message to Defraine that said: ‘We now officially gangsters’ and ‘we are a firm ant we’.
Defraine replied: ‘Proper heavy and armed to the teeth no one wants beef fam’ before quoting the lyrics to gangster rapper Notorious BIG’s track ‘Gimme the Loot’.
The gangsters had installed PGP encryption software on their phones, or ‘pretty good privacy’, and they were eventually unlocked by an expert in Canada after two-months of trying.
But he said the guns were ‘more than just trophies’, adding: ‘The defendants intended these guns to be used, and to be used with ammunition for the purpose for which they were designed – as lethal weapons capable of unleashing carnage on a terrifying scale – and they clearly intended to profit from doing so.’
Shilling, Payne and Defraine went to Homebase to stock up spades, pickaxes and waterproof bags to bury the weapons until they could be sold on.
They also purchased five bottles of ammonia to conceal the smell of the guns from specially trained dogs.
Earlier that day, Shilling sent an angry text to Rye, reading ‘You f*cking scaghead, I told you to be up’ when he overslept and missed the trip to Homebase.
Emails outlining his plans for a shipman of 30 glock pistols were also uncovered, as well as his bartering with a criminal who offered to buy 16 of them.
The NCA, dubbed Britain’s FBI, were monitoring their activities in the weeks and months leading up to the importation.
Firearms officers from Kent Police moved in after sports bags and suitcases were unloaded from the boat into a white van on 11 August last year as Shilling made plans to sell the weapons.
Payne was arrested in the van along with the guns, magazines and ammunition before officers picked up Smale and Owen on the nearby Ali Kat where Arthy lived with Payne.
Armed NCA officers arrested Shilling and Defraine outside the DIY store, in Orpington, Kent while Rye was found in a nearby McDonalds restaurant.
Arthy was accused of washing £17,000 from Shilling through her bank account to give Payne the funds to pay for the yacht.
But giving evidence she said she believed the cash was a gift from Payne’s father Dennis to help them buy a boat.
Smale insisted he was just helping out his best mate Payne and denied any knowledge of the plot.
Shilling, of Hart Dyke Road, in Swanley; and Defraine, of Franklin Road, Bexleyheath, all denied but were convicted of being knowingly concerned in the evasion of a prohibition on importation of the firearms and conspiracy to possess firearms with intent to endanger life.
Shilling admitted a third charge of possession of pepper spray.
Arthy and Smale, of Rochester Road, Halling, Rochester, were acquitted of both charges.
Rye, of Lime Road, Swanley; Payne, of Rochester Road, Halling; and Owen, of Bush Road, Cuxton, pleaded guilty to being knowingly concerned in the evasion of a prohibition on importation of the firearms.
Rye and Payne also admitted conspiracy to possess firearms with intent to endanger life.
The NCA’s head of special operations Rob Lewin said: ‘The weapons seized here were hugely powerful and the evidence showed that Shilling and his gang would have had no hesitation in using them.
‘They thought having this kind of firepower made them untouchable, but we were determined to stay one step ahead of them all the way.’