A businessman has been jailed for five years for a £1 million oil scam which involved syphoning off fuel from underground pipelines, including one at former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s official country estate.
Roger Gull was part of a criminal operation which involved drilling into high pressure pipelines - including in Hampshire - to steal hundreds of thousands of litres of fuel worth millions of pounds.
Among the targets was a pipeline in the grounds of the Chevening Estate in Kent, when it was the former Liberal Democrat leader’s ministerial country home.
Judge Philip St John-Stevens said Gull’s role was ‘imperative’ to the conspiracy as he handed him the sentence at Maidstone Crown Court on Friday.
He added: ‘Only you know why and how you got involved.’
The 51-year-old - dressed in a grey suit, striped shirt and spotted tie - paced up and down outside the courtroom before the hearing and said goodbye to a large group of relatives, including his elderly parents, who had arrived at court by minibus.
The married father-of-three, who was described as courteous, polite and friendly, was found guilty of conspiracy to steal hydrocarbon oil as well as two counts of money laundering at a trial in July.
He was handed a five-year jail term for the conspiracy, and concurrent three year and six month sentences for each of the charges of money laundering.
Kent Police’s investigation found Gull went by the fake name of Dave Saunders when he rented a barn from the landowner at a farm off Ovenden Road in July 2013.
The building sits in 3,000 acres of parkland dating back to the 13th century which surrounds Chevening House. The estate is owned by a board of trustees but the Prime Minister can nominate a cabinet member to occupy the furnished 17th century Grade I listed mansion.
Mr Clegg shared this perk with then foreign secretary William Hague at the time of Gull’s crimes.
The estate is now used by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson alongside Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, and Brexit Secretary David Davis.
Gull claimed he was working for a company carrying out engineering work on the M25 and needed to use the site for storage.
He erected a metal fence and moved shipping containers on to the compound, then paid labourers with specialist skills and knowledge to drill into the nearby fuel pipelines. A hydraulic hose fed the stolen fuel back to a compound and into huge containers stored in a lorry trailer.
But his plot was discovered just over a year later when pipeline operators carried out an inspection and found the hose, which had been buried 2ft underground and ran from the pipeline to the compound.
When officers arrested Gull in November 2014, they raided the compound and found a trailer, shipping containers and a caravan. Inside the trailer alone they found 20 containers capable of storing 1,000 litres of fuel which would then be sold on.
Gull sold some £284,000 of oil to haulage company Essex Bulk Services over a short period of time of between three or four months, the court heard.
As the investigation progressed, officers found he had also been stealing fuel in Essex, Hampshire, Northampton and Cheshire between June 2013 and November 2014.
Judge St John-Stevens said: ‘What is quite clear is that you played a part in this conspiracy.
‘It is of note that in relation to such activity, not only is there the cost of the oil that has been stolen but also the costs of repairing and putting right the incursions [the damage caused by drilling into the pipelines].’
Oil in the region of £800,000 was stolen from pipelines underneath the Chevening Estate and the cost of repair was £135,000, he told the court.
The exact value of the conspiracy could not be known but it is in the region of £1 million, he said.
Judge St John-Stevens described it as a ‘sophisticated’ criminal scam to target pipelines in which Gull used a ‘cover’ of family businesses.
He branded the drilling of high-pressure underground pipes as inherently dangerous and having negative environmental consequences.
Gull, of Upminster Road, Rainham, Essex, was acquitted of possessing criminal property of £26,000.
Ami Feder, defending, criticised the prosecution’s case on the conspiracy, telling the court it included a ‘total exaggeration of the actual figures’ of funds and fuel involved.
Judge St John-Stevens said the jury convicted on ‘compelling evidence’ and Gull acted in a leading role with a great deal of planning, knowledge and preparedness, even if he was not present each time the pipelines were broken into.
But he acknowledged there must have been others involved.
Two other men arrested and charged during the investigation - Gull’s son Ryan and his driver Thomas Campbell - were cleared.
Detective Constable Dean Sycamore, who was commended in court for his efforts in the case, said: ‘Roger Gull was involved in the theft of millions of litres of petrol, diesel and aviation fuel, undertaking a number of extremely dangerous techniques, breaching pipelines which operate at very high pressure.
‘This was a truly vast operation which would have earned Gull considerable dividends, as he then sold the fuel in huge containers each able to house 1,000 litres at a time.
‘His greed has now earned a lengthy prison sentence and rest assured we will now look to use the Proceeds of Crime Act to take back any criminal gains Gull has made.’