Couriers smuggled suitcases of cash from UK to Dubai as part of £100m money laundering scheme

Jonathan Johnson, 55, and Jo Emma Larvin, 44, both from Ripon in North Yorkshire, were among four people convicted over the money laundering scheme. Credit: National Crime Agency

Four cash couriers who smuggled suitcases of cash out of the UK to Dubai as part of a £100m money laundering scheme have been convicted.

The network smuggled more than £104 million from UK to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) city during 83 separate trips between November 2019 and October 2020.

Jonathan Johnson, 55, and Jo Emma Larvin, 44, both from Ripon in North Yorkshire, Beatrice Auty, 26, from London and Amy Harrison, 27, from Worcester Park in Surrey have been found guilty by a jury at Isleworth Crown Court.

Larvin, a former model, 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.

Auty, who was arrested following NCA raids in May 2021, travelled between Heathrow and Dubai twice in July and August of that year, checking in seven suitcases containing £3.4 million.

She 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.

They are among 11 couriers to have been convicted.

Ringleader Abdullah Alfalsi, 47, was jailed for more than nine years in July last year.

Adrian Searle, director of the National Economic Crime Centre in the National Crime Agency, 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 NCA said couriers, who were paid about £3,000 for each trip and were booked on business class flights, communicated via a Whatsapp group called "Sunshine and lollipops".

Beatrice Auty travelled on two flights and checked in seven suitcases containing £3.4 million. Credit: National Crime Agency

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.”

Some of the cash handled by Beatrice Auty. Credit: National Crime Agency

Tara Hanlon, from Leeds, was jailed for almost three years for her part in the operation. She was convicted in June 2021 after being caught trying to smuggle almost £2 million out of the UK in her suitcases.

Five other couriers have pleaded guilty at previous hearings and are also due to be sentenced. 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.

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