A gang of smugglers are facing jail for using jet skis and rubber dinghies to illegally transport people across the Channel.
Wayne Bath, 39 and Albert Letchford, 42, helped father and son Leonard Powell, 66, and Alfie Powell, 39. with the practicalities of the operation such as towing, storing and crewing their vessels.
The Old Bailey heard the Powells, a traveller family from Kent, had a matrimonial connection with a family in Albania.
Relatives Saba Dulaj, 23, and Artur Nutaj, 39, acted as ‘travel agents’ and were involved in sourcing and communicating with the migrants.
They also helped with providing onward transport after the Channel crossing and enabling the migrants to disappear once they had entered the UK.
Police swooped in on the gang when three of the members met up to discuss using jet skis to transport their customers.
The men had denied involvement in the operation but a jury at the Old Bailey today (Tues) convicted each of them with ferrying non-EU migrants into the UK from France between April 1 and August 14, 2016.
Two further defendants – Francis Wade, 59, and Alan Viles, 27, were both cleared of one count of conspiracy to facilitate the commission of a breach of the immigration law.
The investigation begun when an inflatable boat called the ‘Rebel’ was found abandoned at Dymchurch Beach in Kent in May, 2016.
Border force officers discovered 17 lifejackets for both adults and children but no signs of the migrants.
This is believed to be the only successful mission, with one subsequent effort failing because the smugglers didn’t know how to use the boat’s navigation system, investigators say.
Wayne Bath arrived to claim the vessel and said he had been fishing the previous night, but the navigation system showed the boat had been sailed across the Channel.
Later that month a second boat became stranded on a return journey from France.
Border Control rescued 18 migrants from the RIB on 28 May in an hour and a half rescue mission.
The NAC said the boat was discovered five miles from the coast, with passengers bailing water from the boat while one woman had to be treated for hypothermia.
The migrants were all Albanian, it was said. The court heard migrants are believed to have paid around £5,500 to be smuggled across the Channel.
Crew members Mark Stribling, 35, from Farningham, and Robert Stilwell, 33,from Dartford were the only ones onboard wearing life jackets.
They were jailed for four-and-a-half years each in July that year and have been linked to Bath’s group.
In July, the group obtained a larger fishing vessel from Southampton called the ‘Boat with No Name’ which was rigged with a listening device by NCA officers.
Cops overheard conversations with Albert Letchford and Francis Wade on 25 July, who are then seen to spend 45 minutes attempting to work the boat’s navigation system.
Audio recordings that pick up a telephone conversation reveal the two were unsuccessfully trying to plug in a French postcode.
The group were arrested on 13 August after three members, including Leonard and George Powell, met in a pub car park and went to buy a jet ski.
One defendant made admissions in interview that they were going to use that jet ski to take migrants across the Channel, it was said.
Case officer Chris Saunders said: “Jet skis were used to travel from North Africa to Spain – but this is about half the distance of the Channel.
“Jet skis have a range of 60miles. It varies on the number of people and weight of those people.
“It’s feasible that it could go that far.
“Our expert who has reviewed the vessels, the condition of those vessels and number of people on them – he said it’s a very dangerous exercise to do.
“To travel across on jet skis would be even more dangerous.”
Rose-Marie Franton, from the CPS, said: “This was a professional and profitable enterprise and was carried out with scant regard for the risks involved or the lives concerned.
“The defendants involved in the conspiracy were aware of the nature of the criminal enterprise in which they had chosen to become involved.
“Thanks to the close partnership between the CPS, the National Crime Agency and the French authorities, the prosecution was able to bring the strongest possible case to court.”
Bath, Letchford, Albert Powell, Leonard Powell, Alfie Powell, Dulaj, and Nutaj will be sentenced at a later date along with Leonard’s other son, George Powell, 41, who pleaded guilty to the same charge earlier this year.