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Cigarettes fraudster guilty of pounds 1.25m theft; Docks foreman warned he faces long jail term.

Byline: Lynda Roughley

A PLANT foreman at Seaforth container terminal was yesterday warned he faces a ``long'' jail sentence after he was convicted of conspiring to steal a container of 8m cigarettes worth pounds 1.25m.

A Liverpool Crown Court jury found William Churchill guilty following 6 1 /2 hours of deliberations.

He sighed and held onto the dock rail when the ten - two majority verdict was returned.

During the six-day trial, the court heard that the container was stolen from the container terminal by a gang in a ``daring and sophisticated'' plot.

They had inside knowledge and were able to switch an empty container for the valuable one and give it the same identification number as the empty one.

Permission was then given for it to leave the port by officials who believed it was empty - and four hours later, when it was found miles away in Halewood - it was, said John McDermott, prosecuting.

Churchill's fingerprints were found on the sticky strips bearing the false identification number on the stolen container.

The strips had been taken off the sides of the container by the gang but they had left those on top of the container.

Mr McDermott said that the sophistication of the plot was its simplicity, but that one critical error landed Churchill in the dock.

Churchill, 35, of Watchyard Lane, Formby, who pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to steal, was remanded in custody until May 27 to enable a presentence report to be prepared after his barrister unsuccessfully urged the judge to grant him bail.

Judge Ian Crompton warned him he faces a long and significant jail sentence.

Mr McDermott said that last June Andrew Weir Shipping Unit, ASWU, had a contract to import the Sovereign cigarettes from Gallagher's factory in Ballymena in Northern Ireland to Liverpool, from where they were to be distributed onwards.

On May 31, six containers were loaded at Gallagher's factory destined for the terminal and they arrived on June 10.

Five days earlier, another ASWU container had arrived at the terminal but that one was empty. At any time there are both empty and full containers and each one container has a unique identification number, said Mr McDermott.

At the start of that week, Churchil arranged to have his shift changed so that he was working 2-10 pm. On the day of the theft, two men paid pounds 1,000 for a trailer from TNT Contracts in Hawthorne Road, Bootle, and drove it away attached to their tractor unit, which had a false registration, and which has never been traced.

One of the drivers went to the row with the empty ASWU container and moved it diagonally opposite.

The same carrier, whose driver has never been identified, then picked up the cigarette container and put it under an awning close to a packing shed. It was there for half an hour, during which time the strips with the false identification number, which had been specially manufactured, were affixed, said Mr McDermott.

It was then deposited where the empty container had been. Permission for that container to leave the terminal was granted later that evening as the computer registered it as being empty.

``There is a complicated security system at the terminal meant to ensure just that sort of thing could not happen, and it took a daring and sophisticated plan to breach that system.''

When interviewed by police, Churchill, who has no previous convictions, denied being involved. He claimed tape was used at the terminal and his fingrprints must have been accidentally transferred onto it.
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:May 9, 2002
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