The mastermind behind Britain’s biggest known gun smuggling operation has been jailed for 35 years for shipping £100,000 of weapons from the same source used in the Charlie Hebdo terror attack.
Harry Shilling bragged “we now officially gangsters” after 22 assault rifles and nine Skorpion sub-machine guns from eastern Europe sailed up the River Medway from Boulogne in France, the Press Association reported.
The 26-year-old and Michael Defraine, 30, were found guilty of gun smuggling and possessing firearms with intent to endanger life following a trial held at the Old Bailey amid almost unprecedented security.
Judge Michael Topolski QC told Shilling: “I’m entirely satisfied the truth is you were the man in charge of this carefully planned, well-funded and sophisticated organisation.”
The “dangerous young man” had been motivated by a desire to “maintain, protect and expand” his drug business, the judge said.
The rest of the gang - skipper David Payne, 43, Richard Rye, 24, and Christopher Owen, 30, who had already pleaded guilty - were also jailed for their role in the “sophisticated” enterprise.
Payne was handed 19 years and six months, including five years on extended licence; Rye was sentenced to 19 years and three months, including five years on extended licence; and Owen, who was caught with two bullets in his pocket, received five years and four months in prison for his lesser role.
“That is why they use them and that’s why they organise their importation, supply and distribution.”
He said the operation could have caused carnage on a “truly horrifying scale”, adding: “The firearms were genuine, fully automatic and in good condition. They were of high calibre. Some of the weapons were loaded and ready to be fired.”
The Albernina vessel arrived with the “evil” cargo near Cuxton Marina, outside Rochester in Kent, on August 10 last year.
But the National Crime Agency had the plotters under surveillance and swooped to seize the weapons before they could be buried and then passed into the wrong hands.
Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson QC had said Shilling masterminded the plan and paid for the guns, with help from his man on the Continent, Defraine, and “loyal lieutenant” and “go-between” Rye.
Payne brought the guns, complete with ammunition and two silencers, into the country on board the Albernina.
Shilling emailed back: “Hahahaha defo that’s sick. Duck and run for cover bitches. We are a firm ant we”, and Defraine responded: “Proper heavy and armed to the teeth no one wants beef fam.”
Shilling also exchanged messages with a mystery contact, “B”, to arrange the onward supply of the guns and bragged he was a “proper cartel”.
The ringleaders had used mobile phones with encrypted software PGP - Pretty Good Privacy - and referred to guns as “toys” and bullets as “sweets” in an attempt to evade authorities.
But on 11 August, Shilling, Defraine and Rye were arrested after visiting DIY store Homebase to buy bags and tools to bury the guns until they were needed.
The NCA hailed it as the biggest seizure of guns on British soil.
Although the gang had no connection with terrorism, the source and route of the weapons was the same as those used in the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris just over six months before, the NCA said.
Rye, also from Swanley, Payne who lived on a houseboat in Cuxton, and Owen, from Rochester, had pleaded guilty to their part in the smuggling conspiracy.
Payne and Rye also admitted conspiracy to supply firearms that would be used by others to endanger life.
Afterwards, Rob Lewin, NCA head of specialist operations, 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.”
Jonathan Ramsay, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “This was a sophisticated importation of weapons with a lethal capacity. The CPS built a strong case focused both on the gang’s plot to import weapons, and on the intentions for their deadly future use.
“Offenders importing or possessing guns do so with a complete disregard to the cost of human life if those guns are used.”