A convicted British money launderer wanted for her role in a £1bn mobile phone tax scam has been arrested by Spanish police after spending almost nine years on the run.
Sarah Panitzke, 47, described by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) as one of the UK’s most wanted tax fugitives, was arrested by plainclothes Guardia Civil officers while out walking her dogs on Sunday in the Catalan town of Santa Bárbara.
She was part of a 16-strong gang that bought mobile phones abroad without VAT then resold them in the UK. She disappeared in May 2013 while on trial for money laundering offences but was convicted and sentenced in her absence to eight years in prison.
Panitzke’s longstanding links with Spain led HMRC to contact the Guardia Civil, who began hunting for her. By 2015, it had tracked her down to the town of Olivella, in the province of Barcelona.
Surveillance revealed that Panitzke hardly ever ventured out of her hiding place and was dependent on weekly visits from her husband, who brought her basic supplies.
“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,” the Guardia Civil said in a statement.
“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.”
But last month, detectives were alerted to her possible presence in Santa Bárbara, a small town of about 4,000 people in Tarragona province.
“At the beginning of last week, we found a woman closely matching the suspect’s physical description who lived in a block of flats on the outskirts of the town,” the statement said.
“Mindful of what had happened in 2015, a large team of plainclothes officers was deployed and she was arrested on the morning of 27 February while out walking her pets.”
Spain’s highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, remanded Panitzke in custody pending the extradition process.
Tom Dowdall, the National Crime Agency’s international deputy director, said Panitzke’s arrest sent a clear message to other fugitives. He said: “We will not rest until you are captured, no matter how long it takes.”
He noted Panitzke had been on the run for almost nine years, saying: “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.”
Simon York, the 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 multimillion-pound VAT fraud and moved millions through offshore bank accounts.”