How Great Yarmouth people smuggling gang were brought to justice
- Credit: National Crime Agency
Members of an organised crime gang have been convicted of trying to smuggle 69 Albanians into Great Yarmouth in a fishing trawler.
Today, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has shed light on how they were brought to justice.
Organised crime gang member Sergejs Kuliss, one of three men behind the smuggling plot, had travelled to the town on the night in question, said a senior investigator at the National Crime Agency.
Mike Smith, senior officer at NCA investigations, said: "Mr Kuliss actually travelled up to meet the boat.
"There were other sorts of drivers, for want of a better term, there to meet the migrants.
They were all very specifically heading to a point in Great Yarmouth. They were all in the vicinity of the River Yare.
"Exactly where they were going to stop along there we just don't know.
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"The cars that were due to meet migrants were all in that vicinity."
The journey of the 69 migrants and the ship's crew of three inexperienced men started in Latvia, where the trawler the Svanic set off.
On its way to pick up the Albanians in Ostend in Belgium the vessel ran aground off the Swedish coast - raising suspicions among the coastguard team which rescued the boat.
Mr Smith said: "In relation to how the investigation started, when the boat ran aground in Sweden the Swedish Coastguard had to go and rescue it.
"They spoke to the crew on board as part of their investigations into what happened.
"They were concerned that basically the crew did not know where they were going, that's the long and the short of it.
"The three of them could not put together a good story on what was happening and where their onward port of call was. The Swedish flagged it up.
"From that point on a, an eye was kept on the boat."
It then collected the Albanians at Ostend.
Mr Smith said: "All we know is that a number of them stayed at a hotel prior to getting on board the boat at Ostend and were there for quite a period of time.
"We are not quite sure of the routes they took to get there. it seems they all took separate routes and met or congregated at the hotel."
The Svanic was then stopped by the Border Force off Great Yarmouth leading to a high profile investigation in organised crime gangs (OCG).
Mr Smith said a breakthrough came from a laptop on board the seized vessel.
He said: "We had a bit of a breakthrough, specifically in relation to one item that was found onboard, a laptop computer.
"That was for navigational purposes on the boat and that was in the bridge area of the boat.
"That was found to contain the data of one of the three organisers based in the UK, a male by the name of Sergejs Kuliss.
"At a very similar time as having discovered this link, we then became aware of a Met Police operation into Mr Kuliss and an organised crime gang.
"That investigation is in relation to high value theft and the Met Police carried out a day of action on December 3. Mr Kuliss was one of those arrested."
Information was then found on mobile phones that was crucial to the NCA investigation.
Mr Smith added: "It became very apparent very quickly that from the devices that had been seized there were a number of very critical voice memos that had been left using WhatsApp.
"These messages and evidence on the phones the Met had seized meant we were able to expand our investigation into the wider OCG that had organised the boat to come across to the UK.
"We had real discussions about the boat and they fact they were going to try and attempt to bring people every week."
It was the gang's first use of the trawler and they hoped to recoup their investment of £20,000 each on their first illegal journey.
Mr Smith said that the crew of the Svanic had little knowledge of running a seaworthy boat and the vessel only had a life raft for 20 people and 20 life jackets.
Mr Smith added: "It just shows they did not care about the cargo they were carrying, it was more about getting as many people into the UK as possible."
Kuliss and fellow gang member Kfir Ivgi, of Finchley, London, were found guilty on Wednesday at Chelmsford Crown Court of conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.
Fellow gang member Arturas Jusas of Wandsworth Road, London, pleaded guilty at a hearing at Chelmsford Crown Court on August 6.
Two members of the Svanic crew were also found guilty of the same offence.
THE FIGHT AGAINST PEOPLE SMUGGLING GANGS
In a press briefing Adam Thompson, head of border threats at the NCA, outlined the fight against organised people smuggling gangs.
He said the NCA is currently involved in 50 high profile investigations.
In the first seven months of the year the NCA has been involved 129 arrests relating to people smuggling.
Describing the problem Mr Thompson said: "It chronic, its enduring, and has been shown by historic and recent cases can involved mass fatalities.
"The scale and complexity of the threat is evolving."
"Tackling organised immigration crime is one of our top priorities, we have about 50 investigations into networks.
"We look to stop and disrupt these OCGs on every step of the route."
Mr Thompson said the cost of using a vessel like the Svanic to crime gangs was very high compared to other people smuggling methods, such as using lorries or smaller boats.