UKs ‘most wanted woman’ returns from Spain, faces 17 years in jail for $1.3 billion laundering crime
United Kingdom’s “most wanted woman” criminal will be repatriated from Spain after more than 10 years on the run from financial fraud charges in her motherland.
British tabloid Metro reports that Sarah Panitzke, 48, had had resisted repatriation, claiming she wanted to serve prison term in Spain, which regards her “adopted homeland.” Panitzke is reported to have pleaded with Spanish judges to reject an extradition application, which would have led to her to serving her jail term in the UK.
According to Metro, “She had demanded the right to be able to serve her sentence in Spain given her strong links to her ‘adopted homeland.’ Her lawyers also said her husband, who also lives in Spain, has a life expectancy of just 10 years due to a liver transplant.”
The lawyers, the report says, argued that her husband would be unable to visit her in the UK if she was extradited. However, the judges declined to grant the prayer, which paves the way for her repatriation to Britain to complete her prison sentence. The date for her return has not yet been set.
Panitzke had been accused of laundering money through companies in Spain, Andorra and Dubai for a group that bought mobile phones abroad without VAT and resold them in the UK. She had previously evaded police capture for years.
The fraudster vanished in May 2013 while she faced trial over an elaborate money laundering scam. She was convicted and sentenced in her absence to eight years in prison. On Monday night, she was said to be languishing in a prison near Madrid ahead of her expected extradition back to the UK.
Initial reports published last year by The Sun said the woman had been held in the town of Villanova i la Geltru in Catalonia, although police were expected to confirm later that she was arrested in a village in the Catalan province of Tarragona.
Panitzke, originally from Fulford near York, had been traced to a town near Barcelona back in 2015, Metro reports. But she managed to flee in disguise after she caught wind of the looming police operation. Authorities again caught up with the fugitive in February, this time in the small Spanish town of Santa Barbara in Tarragona.
After weeks of surveillance, she was arrested by an elite police team while out walking her dogs. Panitze’s high-profile arrest in February had made headlines in Spain and the UK, as she was the only woman on the National Crime Agency’s Most Wanted List.
It emerged on Tuesday that she had been living for seven years before her arrest with the fake ID for a ‘Antonietta Argiulo’. She had evaded police capture in a three-bed maisonette on the outskirts of the town of Santa Barbara in the province of Tarragona.
Panitzke attended the York College for Girls before moving on to fee-paying St Peter’s School. She studied Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University before going on to a master’s degree in Barcelona in Business Management.
Following her arrest Simon York, director of the fraud investigation service at HMRC, said, as quoted by The Sun, “Sarah Panitzke was one of Britain’s most wanted tax fugitives. She played a pivotal role in a multimillion-pound VAT fraud and moved millions through offshore bank accounts. Panitzke thought she had put herself outside of the reach of HMRC, but through our work with UK law enforcement and international partners we have tracked down another tax fugitive. No tax criminal is beyond our reach.”
She was listed in Britain’s most wanted fugitives after absconding in May 2013 before the end of her trial as a senior member of a crime group involved in VAT fraud. The privately-educated fraudster was sentenced in her absence to eight years behind bars in August 2013.
She was said to have “disappeared into thin air” after becoming the only woman on the National Crime Agency’s Most Wanted List. British holidaymakers were asked to help catch the convicted scammer from Fulford near York in a recent appeal for information on the whereabouts of fugitive killers, sex attackers and drug traffickers.
According to El Confidencial, which broke the news of the arrest, she has been fighting her forced return to the UK. Two UK customs officials asked to attend her extradition hearing, the outlet reported.
There has not yet been any official comment from the Civil Guard.
The Madrid-based judge who ordered her remand in prison while she fights her forced return to the UK has been identified as Joaquin Gadea.
Panitzke, who went to York College for Girls before moving on to prestigious St Peter’s School, came from a wealthy family. Her dad Leo was a residential property developer and insurance broker but was arrested when she was 19 for buying council houses and selling them early for a large profit and was subsequently sentenced to four years in prison.
She studied Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University before doing a master’s degree in Barcelona in Business Management. Sarah was recruited into notorious tax criminal Geoffrey Johnson’s web of 18 fraudsters located throughout the UK after meeting an acquaintance.
Panitzke was part of a group of companies that bought cheap mobile phones in overseas countries without VAT, then sold them in the UK for a big profit.
Operation Vaulter, the codename given to HMRC’s investigation into the fraud gang, led to a trial at Kingston Crown Court. Sarah was handed an eight-year sentence after pleading not guilty. The gang’s 18 members received sentences totalling 135 years.
She disappeared before the trial had finished. At the time she was said to have been living in the coastal town with two dogs and a long-term partner and doing “front jobs” as a hotel worker and property investor.
Recent reports said she will face 17 years’ incarceration for non-payment of a £2.4 million confiscation order, which means further time had been added to her prison sentence. Her brother Leon told Vice magazine last year, “The whole saga had been incredibly difficult for everyone involved.”
Police described her in their wanted appeal as, “170-centimetre tall, slim build with mousey straight hair, blue eyes and a Yorkshire accent.” The NCA had said in an earlier appeal, “She controlled the company accounts of many companies remotely via different IP addresses.
“Panitzke travelled extensively to further the fraud to places including Dubai, Spain and Andorra. She was responsible for laundering approximately one billion pounds.”
- A Tell report with background information from The Sun and Metro