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“We now officially gangsters” - crime group imported lethal arsenal of automatic weapons

Two men who bragged that they were “officially gangsters” after smuggling assault rifles and submachine guns to the UK have been convicted by a jury at the Old Bailey.

Harry Shilling and Michael Defraine exchanged messages stating that they were “armed to the teeth” after hearing that the boat they used to bring the weapons to the UK had arrived in Kent. They did not know that the cache had been under surveillance for days and was about to be seized by armed officers from the NCA and Kent Police.

The haul of guns included 22 Czech VZ-58 assault rifles, similar in type to the AK-47, and nine Skorpion machine pistols, along with 58 magazines and more than a thousand rounds of ammunition. The NCA believes it to be the largest seizure of automatic weapons ever made on the UK mainland.

Shilling and Defraine were found guilty of importation and firearms offences following a six week trial at the Old Bailey.

In the dock alongside them were John Smale and Jennifer Arthy, who were both found not guilty of importation of firearms and conspiracy  to possess firearms with intent to endanger life.

Three other men, including David Payne who sailed the boat carrying the guns, had already pleaded guilty. All five will be sentenced on 13 May 2016.

When Payne left UK waters on 9 August 2015 on board the MV Albernina, he was being tracked by the NCA, working with partners including Border Force, the National Maritime Information Centre (NMIC) and Kent Police. The boat travelled to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France where the guns were loaded on board, and returned the following day first arriving in Rochester and then moving to a location near Cuxton on the River Medway.

That night Payne sent a text message to Shilling’s right-hand man, Richard Rye, stating “all done”. Shortly afterwards Defraine and Shilling exchanged phone messages showing they knew the boat had returned, one of which read “We now officially gangsters”.

On 11 August NCA surveillance teams watched as Payne, assisted by Smale and another man, Christopher Owen, unloaded bags and suitcases from the boat into a van.

After the van drove away armed NCA officers moved in to intercept it without alerting the other members of the gang, and arrested Payne. Kent Police tactical firearms officers then moved in to arrest Smale and Owen on the Albernina and arrested Arthy on the nearby Ali Kat houseboat where she and Payne lived.

Defraine and Shilling were detained by armed NCA officers outside a DIY store in Orpington, where they had just purchased spades and pick-axes to bury the weapons. Rye tried to flee but was arrested in a nearby McDonalds restaurant.

The weapons were taken to a secure location where they were examined by NCA forensic experts. All were found to be viable firearms. They had been previously deactivated under license by a specialist firm in Slovakia, and then reactivated before being acquired by the Shilling group.

The NCA is working with European partners to investigate the source of the guns.

Rye and Payne pleaded guilty to importation offences and conspiring to possess firearms, while Owen admitted being involved in the importation.

The others denied the charges but were found guilty by a jury on 21 April 2016.

NCA Head of Specialist Operations, Rob Lewin, said:

“This seizure of automatic weapons was the largest ever made by the NCA – and, we believe, the largest ever on the UK mainland. These are hugely powerful firearms, and have, as the prosecution stated in court, a ‘truly devastating capability’.

“We cannot say for certain what the organised crime group would have done with the weapons had they not been stopped. But the evidence pointed to them not being afraid to use guns themselves to expand their influence. They wanted to move up in the criminal world from regional to international gangsters.

“The group was motivated by profit, so we can only speculate that some of these weapons would have been sold to whoever had the means to pay the asking price.

“In bringing them to justice we have had fantastic support from our partners at Kent Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and Border Force.

“I have no doubt that together we have protected the public and saved lives.”



Detective Superintendent Mark Hall of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate said:

“This case is a fantastic example of partnership working using the combined reach of both organisations to tackle organised crime. We are very proud of our close relationship with the National Crime Agency and on this occasion it was crucial in preventing the importation of a huge amount of illegal firearms onto the streets of Kent.

“Thankfully incidents involving weapons such as this are extremely rare in our county, and we are firmly committed to keeping it that way.

“Those responsible on this occasion are members of a Kent-based organised crime group, who clearly have little regard for the consequences their actions have on law-abiding members of the public. I am pleased they are now behind bars where they can cause no further harm.

“We share the NCA’s zero tolerance approach to gun crime and will do everything in our power to support their work in tackling this issue.”

Tom Guest, Specialist Organised Crime Prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service, said:
“These defendants imported deadly weapons, including 22 assault rifles which fire automatically and have a devastating capability. These guns were working weapons which came with a large amount of ammunition and were clearly intended for use. The evidence showed Harry Shilling intended to use the weapons for his own means, and to arm criminal associates.
“This was a sophisticated operation involving weapons with a lethal capacity. The CPS built a strong case, working with the NCA, Kent Police and international partners, not only around the organised crime gang’s plot to import the weapons – but also about the intentions for their deadly future use.
“The prosecution deployed key evidence of email messages to demonstrate the criminality in this case. The defendants said they were “…now officially gangsters”, they were “proper heavy and armed to the teeth“ and said people should “duck and run for cover”. Harry Shilling described his group as being an “armed cartel” following the importation.
“Each defendant played an important role in this operation and was well aware of the danger of these firearms, and the consequences of their use.”

Call for vigilance

In this case a potentially lethal arsenal of firearms were smuggled into the UK by small boat. We're calling on members of the public to help prevent similar attempts at smuggling criminal commodities, whether it's firearms, drugs or people. 

If you see anything suspicious, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, please report it to your local police by calling 101, or to Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

You never know how important it may be.

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