Money laundering cash couriers smuggled £100 million in suitcases

The National Crime Agency has dismantled a network of criminal cash couriers that laundered more than £100m by smuggling it out of the UK to Dubai in the UAE.

Custody images of Beatrice Auty, Jonathan Johnson and Jo Emma LarvinFrom left to right: Beatrice Auty, Jonathan Johnson and Jo Emma Larvin

Eleven of the couriers have now been convicted, following yesterday’s guilty verdicts returned in the trial of Beatrice Auty, 26, from London; Jonathan Johnson, 55, and Jo Emma Larvin, 44, both from Ripon in North Yorkshire, and Amy Harrison, 27, from Worcester Park in Surrey, at Isleworth Crown Court.

Their network smuggled more than £104 million from the UK to Dubai during 83 separate trips between November 2019 and October 2020, overseen by ringleader Abdullah Alfalsi, 47, who was jailed for more than nine years in July last year.

Adrian Searle, Director of the National Economic Crime Centre in the NCA, said:

“The laundering of such vast quantities of cash around the globe enables organised criminals and corrupt elites to clean or hide their ill-gotten gains.

“Cash smugglers typically work on behalf of International Controller Networks, who move the finances of the international drug trade, people traffickers, fraudsters and other criminal groups, making the source of the money difficult to trace.

“The criminality this enables costs the UK billions every year, causes misery and ruins lives across the world.

“This case demonstrates the continued commitment by the NCA to crackdown on money laundering and close the vulnerabilities being exploited.”

The couriers, who were paid around £3,000 for each trip and would be booked on business class flights due to the extra luggage allowance, communicated on a Whatsapp group entitled ’Sunshine and lollipops’.

Investigators established that courier Tara Hanlon, who was convicted in June 2021, had briefed another courier about the operation. The courier had travelled from Heathrow to Dubai on three occasions in August and September 2020, checking in 18 suitcases which contained £6.8 million.

Auty, who was arrested following NCA raids in May 2021, travelled the same route twice in July and August of that year, checking in seven suitcases containing £3.4 million. Czech national Zdenek Kamaryt, who was convicted of money laundering in March 2021, joined her on the second trip.

Auty was involved in the logistical arrangements for another 16 trips, helping to pack cash into suitcases, accompanying travellers to Heathrow and collecting empty suitcases when they returned so they could be used again.

Larvin made two trips to Dubai in August and September 2020; one with Amy Harrison when they took seven cases between them containing £2.2 million and another with her partner Jonathan Johnson, when they took eight suitcases containing £2.8 million.

Larvin and Johnson were arrested at Manchester Airport in March 2022.

Harrison made three trips between July and September 2020, taking 15 suitcases containing around £6m.

The network collected cash from criminal groups around the UK, which was believed to be the profits of drug dealing, and took it to counting houses, usually rented apartments in Central London.

The money was then vacuum packed and separated into suitcases which would typically each contain around £500,000, weighing around 40 kilos. They were sprayed with coffee or air fresheners in an effort to prevent them being found by Border Force detection dogs.

NCA senior investigating officer Ian Truby said: “These couriers were important cogs in a large money laundering wheel.

“The crime group they belonged to was responsible for smuggling eye-watering amounts of criminal cash out of the UK.

“This simply wouldn’t have been possible without couriers doing their bidding, in return for a sunshine holiday and a slice of the profit.

“Cash is the lifeblood of organised crime groups, which they re-invest into activities such as drug trafficking. This fuels violence and insecurity around the world, which is why our investigation into other cash couriers continues.”

Five other couriers have pleaded guilty at previous hearings and will be sentenced at a later date, along with those convicted yesterday. They are:

  • Nicola Esson, 56, from Leeds, and Stacey Borg, 41, of Pudsey, West Yorkshire, who were arrested in May 2021. Esson travelled from Heathrow to Dubai on three occasions in August and September 2020, checking in 19 suitcases with a combined weight of almost half a tonne. Borg made three trips to Dubai during the same period, on one occasion travelling with Esson. She declared £1.8 million in cash to Dubai customs in September 2020 and £2.5 million the following month.
  • Paige Henry, 25, from Birmingham, made four trips to Dubai in August and September 2020, one alone and three with other couriers, carrying a total of 24 suitcases containing £8.25 million.
  • Megan Reeves, 30, from Doncaster, was arrested alongside Hanlon in October 2020, with five suitcases between them containing £2 million. Messages showed the pair had known each other since 2017. At the time Reeves claimed they were going on a ‘girly holiday’ to Dubai but communications showed she intended to make 13 trips to clear debts of £39,000.
  • Muhammad Ilyas, 30, from Slough, was arrested by NCA officers at Heathrow Airport after in February 2020 after arriving on a flight from Dubai. He had checked in four suitcases at the airport ten days earlier, one of which had gone missing, and declared almost £1.5 million in cash to Dubai Customs. The missing suitcase was subsequently found by Border Force officers, and contained £431,360 in cash.

Other couriers remain under investigation.

The NCA investigation has been supported by Border Force and the UAE authorities. A number of British couriers are under investigation in the UAE and cannot leave until inquiries have been completed by UAE law enforcement.

26 April 2023