Britain’s most wanted woman who was part of a £1 billion VAT fraud gang has been caught by police in Spain after almost a decade on the run.
Sarah Panitzke, 47, had been on National Crime Agency’s list of most wanted fugitives after she was convicted in 2013.
Cops even asked British holidaymakers to help catch the fraudster from Fulford, near York, in an appeal for information on wanted killers, sex attackers and drug traffickers.
She was arrested by Spain’s Guardia Civil on Sunday morning in as she was walking her dogs in Santa Barbara, Tarragona, 95km south of Barcelona.
Extradition proceedings to bring her back to the UK have started.
Panitzke was the only woman on most wanted list
Panitzke was said to have “disappeared into thin air” after becoming the only woman on the National Crime Agency’s most wanted list in May 2013 when she stood trial for money laundering offences.
She was convicted and sentenced in her absence to eight years following an investigation by HMRC.
She was identified as part of an organised crime group responsible for laundering approximately £1 billion from a mobile phone VAT fraud.
Panitzke and her 17 co-conspirators were given jail terms totalling 135 years.
They had all been caught, convicted and sentenced, but she remained at large for almost a decade having absconded before the trial had concluded.
The NCA’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.”
Fraudster lived a life of luxury
Panitzke is said to have grown up in a wealthy family in the village of Escrick, near Selby, North Yorkshire.
She went to York College for Girls before moving on to fee-paying St Peter’s School which is the third oldest in the world.
Her father Leo, a residential property developer and insurance broker, was jailed for four years for buying council houses and selling them on early for a large profit.
She is believed to have lived a life of luxury in a gated community in the hills of Vilanova i la Geltrú, an hour from the centre of Barcelona before she vanished.
Simon York, director of HMRC’s fraud investigation service, 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.
“We have helped secure the return more than 60 fugitives since 2016, including some of the UK’s most harmful tax cheats.”
Lord Ashcroft, founder and chairman of the independent charity Crimestoppers, said: “It’s hugely encouraging news to hear of Sarah Panitske’s arrest in Spain after being on our Most Wanted list for some years.
“It shows how our charity, working with the NCA to find the most wanted fugitives, benefits us all. Our communities, here in the UK and abroad, are safer as a result.”
A message from the editor:
Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going. You can also sign up to our email newsletters and get a curated selection of our best reads to your inbox every day.