Britain’s most wanted woman who allegedly laundered over GBP 1 billion (1.2 billion Euros) in a mobile phone tax scam before fleeing during her trial has been busted by Spanish police.
Sarah Gina Panitzke, 47, fled the UK in May 2013 during her trial and she has been wanted ever since, having been convicted in absentia to serve 17 years in prison.
She was the last person of the gang of fraudsters to remain at large and its alleged criminal mastermind.
In 2019 she was the only woman added to the Crimestoppers Most Wanted Fugitives in Spain, where she was described as: ” To carry out the alleged frauds, she travelled extensively to places including Dubai, Spain and Andorra. She absconded in May 2013 before her trial finished. Panitzke has a Yorkshire accent and is about 5ft 5in tall. Eighteen members of her crime group received sentences totalling 135 years”.
Spanish Civil Guard said today (Tuesday, 1st March) that she was arrested by the officers in the north-eastern port city of Tarragona, which is located in the autonomous community of Catalonia, on the morning of Sunday, 27th February.
The Spanish authorities said: “The organisation that the now arrested woman was part of, was dedicated to VAT fraud in the sale of mobile phones. These telephones were bought abroad without VAT and resold in the United Kingdom, thereby obtaining a profit estimated by the British HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs) to be over GBP 1 billion.”
The Spanish police said that after Panitzke fled the UK, and “given the family and academic ties that she has had with our country since her adolescence”, everything indicated that she had probably fled to Spain.
The Spanish police said that they had caught up with her in 2015 but she had eluded them by wearing a disguise after detecting their presence.
They said in their statement: “In 2015, it was confirmed that her S.P. was hiding in the town of Olivella (Barcelona), where she was visited by her husband on weekends amid great security measures.
“These visits had the purpose of supplying the now detained woman with all the basic products, since she hardly left her hiding place so as not to raise suspicions. However, during the operation established to arrest her, she managed to detect the police presence, completely change her appearance and escape from it.
“From that moment she became a priority target for researchers, accumulating and analyzing a large amount of data about her and permanently monitoring her closest environment. Despite this, it was determined that she had broken all physical ties with her family in Spain so as not to be detected.”
Twenty of the 21 people who were wanted in connection with the widespread scam have already been caught, tried and jailed. The master of disguise was the last one on the list.
The cops said that they got wind of her again in February this year. They said that they had obtained information about her potentially being “in the town of Santa Barbara (Tarragona), a small town of about 4,000 inhabitants.”
The Civil Guard added that this time around, they were not about to let her slip through their fingers. They said: “With this information, a permanent surveillance of the population was established that lasted for weeks. Thus, at the beginning of last week it was possible to detect a woman who fully coincided with the physical characteristics of the detainee, managing to determine that she lived in an apartment block on the outskirts of the municipality.
“Taking into account the events that occurred in 2015, a large device was established with plainclothes agents on the morning of February 27, managing to arrest her when she left her home to walk with her dogs.”
The police said that her file is being handled by the Central Court of Instruction No. 6 of the National High Court.
They added that an extradition procedure was underway so that she can be returned to the United Kingdom to serve her sentence.
The police said that their investigation was carried out from its inception by the Justice Fugitives Team of the Central Operational Unit and the Judicial Police Unit of the Catalonia Zone, all with the support of the British HMRC.