SHE was once Britain’s most wanted woman for her part in a €1 billion VAT scam.
She escaped the reach of British police and evaded Spanish investigators for eight long years, changing her appearance and disappearing into the Catalunya countryside.
But finally the long arm of the law has caught up with Sarah Panitzke, 47 and she was arrested last week while walking her dogs near the town of Santa Barbara in Tarragona province.
Video footage shows the moment she was apprehended by Spain’s Guardia Civil accompanied by an officer from the UK’s Custom and Excise.
She faces being hauled back to the UK to serve an eight-year sentence for VAT fraud. Panitzke had been sentenced in absentia after hearing she was responsible for laundering €1 billion.
Pantizke, from York, became the only woman to feature on the UK National Crime Agency’s Most Wanted list back in 2016.
Panitzke was involved with firms that purchased cheap mobile phones abroad without paying VAT, and then imported them to Britain to sell at a large profit.
She was described as the money launderer of the operation with cash cleaned from the phone unit profits in countries like Andorra, Dubai, and Spain.
Operation Vaulter was the name given to the UK’s tax authority’s probe into the gang, which resulted in a 2013 trial at Kingston Crown Court.
Some 18 people were involved in the mass fraud led by tax criminal 78-year-old Geoffrey Johnson, who was arrested in Dubai in 2017 and jailed for 24 years.
Panitzke was the only remaining gang member who had escaped justice. She faces more trouble when she returns home with potentially another nine years years added to her sentence due to the non-payment of a €3 million confiscation order.
Spanish police had come within a whisker of nabbing her back in 2015. She was hiding in Catalunya, relying on her husband to deliver basic supplies weekly. Surveillance was put on her husband and her whereabouts traced.
A Guardia Civil spokesman said: “However during the operation that was due to lead to her arrest, she managed to pick up on the police presence, completely change her appearance, and escape.
“From that moment, she became a priority aim for investigators, who gathered and analysed a massive quantity of information about her and kept a permanent watch on her closest contacts. They also found that she had broken off all physical contact with her family in Spain to avoid being detected.”
Pantizke remained elusive and it was not until now – seven years on – that she was finally traced.
The spokesman added: “We found a woman closely matching the suspect’s physical description who lived in a block of flats on the outskirts of the town.
“Mindful of what had happened in 2015, a large team of plainclothes officers was deployed and she was arrested on the morning of February 27 while out walking her pets.”
She was taken into the custody of the National Court in Madrid ahead of extradition proceedings to the UK.
The UK’s National Crime Agency’s International Deputy Director Tom Dowdall said: “Sarah Panitzke has been on the run for almost nine years. Given the length of time she might have thought we had stopped searching, but she remained on our radar.
“Joint working between UK law enforcement and our partners in Spain led to her being apprehended, and we will now seek her extradition back to the UK to serve her prison sentence.
“This should serve as a warning to others on our most wanted list – we will not rest until you are captured, no matter how long it takes.”
Simon York, Director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “Sarah Panitzke was one of Britain’s most wanted tax fugitives.
“She played a pivotal role in a multi-million 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.”
- Britain’s ‘Most Wanted’ woman arrested while walking dog in upmarket area of Spain’s Catalunya
- Have you seen him? Police hunt Brit fugitive thought to be on the run in Spain’s Marbella
- ‘He could be your neighbour’: Hunt for 12 most wanted British fugitives believed to be hiding out in Spain