Sarah Panitzke was a well-off expat living in Spain when she became embroiled in a criminal enterprise worth £1 billion.
The National Crime Agency’s most wanted list is a filofax of fraudsters, drug lords, rapists, paedophiles and murderers. As you might expect, it’s dominated by men. But among the 21 criminals on the list, there is one solitary woman, staring out of her mugshot with stormy blue eyes and the smallest hint of a smile.
Sarah Panitzke, 47, has been on the run for eight years, after laundering approximately £1 billion of illicit money through offshore bank accounts. For the her role near the top of a crime group that conducted a large-scale carousel fraud operation, she has been named the most wanted woman in Britain for the past six consecutive years.
James Brooks, 47, met Sarah as a teenager while playing sport against her school in York, St. Peter’s, where fees currently top out at over £19,000 a year. “In netball and hockey, she was an attacker,” says James, who now lives on Spain’s Costa Blanca and works at Alicante airport. “A good team player, but competitive – she wanted to win.”
Alongside her sport and studies – she aced all of her A-levels – Sarah managed to make time for being a teenager. “We’d hang out in central York and go drinking and smoking, and do all the things we shouldn’t have been doing,” says James, who later became Sarah’s boyfriend. “She wasn’t one for going shopping with the girls. She’d rather go and have a pint and a fag with the lads.”
According to James, Sarah had a happy childhood with her brother Leon, and rarely disobeyed or fought with her family. Leo and Paula Panitzke were relaxed parents and built a bar with beer taps, a pool table and a TV at the end of their garden for Sarah to smoke and socialise in. “She didn’t have to hide anything from them,” says James. “They’d advise it wasn’t a good idea to be smoking or driving too fast… but she didn’t have to be secretive.”
“We were adrenaline junkies,” adds James, thinking back to the summers spent at the Panitzke’s second home in Villajoyosa on Spain’s Costa Blanca. “We’d go high diving off rock areas along the coast. She’d be encouraging me to do dives and I’d say, ‘I don’t think it’s the right move,’ but she had no fear at all.”
After college, Sarah left home to study Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University, with ambitions of owning her own hotel in the future. “She knew her dad was wealthy, and she just wanted to do it herself as opposed to living off his wealth,” says James. “She just wanted to be as good, if not better, than her father.”
When Sarah was 19, a revelation about her father’s success rocked their family. The building contractor had acquired council properties and sold them prematurely for a large profit. An investigation was launched, and Sarah’s dad was arrested and eventually given four years in jail, serving just two.
Family loyalty was Sarah’s number one priority. “Her mum and dad came first and Leon, her brother, third,” says James, who worked in a chip shop and was unable to get the time off work for her father’s final court appearance. “Look, you’ve let the whole family down,” Sarah told James when he revealed the diary clash, before breaking up with him over the perceived betrayal.
Sarah moved back home to be with her mum, Paula, for the first few months her father was inside. She travelled back and forth between Manchester and York, accompanying her to visiting days, disrupting her own studies and social life to be present. When Sarah’s father was released from prison, she re-launched her life plan quickly and left to study for her master’s degree in Business Management at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, aged 25. But somewhere between leaving York and moving to Spain, Sarah became embroiled in a white collar crime of her own.
Alongside 18 other fraudsters from up and down the UK, Sarah established a network of companies that bought and sold mobile phones with a felonious money-making twist. The group purchased phones VAT-free from EU countries, then sold them in the UK for a higher, tax-inclusive price.
The head of the crime ring, 78-year-old Geoffrey Johnson, recruited fellow fraudsters, including Sarah, from Cheshire, East Sussex, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, North Wales, Staffordshire, Scotland and Spain. They were so unconnected that even the authorities couldn’t establish exactly how the mastermind had found his co-conspirators, although there was a suggestion at the trial that an unidentified party overseas had linked them together.
Phones were the chosen commodity because they were small, valuable and easy to take in and out of the country in what looked like a legitimate business. After the goods were sold, the company would disappear without paying a pound to HMRC, in what’s known as missing trader intra-community fraud (MTIC). But the crime didn’t stop there.
The scam was repeated time and time again with the same products, round and round, as if on a carousel. “They were very nimble in their operations,” says lawyer Abbas Lakha, who represented one gang member at trial. “At one stage there were more mobile phones being purchased and exported by a single crime syndicate in the space of a month than actually bought or sold in the country as a whole.”
The gang had access to a banking platform that allowed one person to transfer huge sums of money up and down a supply chain without losing control of the cash. For each deal, the scam would rob the authorities twice. By owning all companies involved, the gang could claim back (never-paid) tax from the public purse. “HMRC didn’t challenge it. They focused on checking if the paper trail confirmed the purported transactions,” Lakha says. “HMRC are completely outsmarted by fraudsters.”
Sarah travelled to Dubai, Spain and Andorra to clean the money the crime ring had stolen. She was in charge of the companies’ accounts, and used generated IP addresses to keep their operation untraceable online.
“She was money focused,” says James. “I think dollar signs would probably have turned her if there was a lot of money put in front of her. She wasn’t greedy, but she liked to have money. She came from money. Not huge money, but she came from wealth. She had a car from the day she first drove. She went to university and never had to stay in halls. She had an allowance, so she didn’t have to work when studying, like most people do. That dollar sign… it would have twisted her into doing something, I imagine.”
For her crime, Sarah is an anomaly. Women made up just 19 percent of those convicted of VAT fraud in the UK, according to Ministry of Justice data collected in 2019 and verified by an FOI seen by VICE. “White-collar crime is like the mafia,” says private investigator Kelly Paxton. “Men don’t let women in unless they absolutely have to, because they don’t trust them. Normally, women don’t even profit in white-collar crime, because they’re in low-level positions.”
But Sarah operated at the upper echelons of her crime ring, and her transactions appeared so squeaky clean that she even registered one of the crime group’s businesses – Investerest Plans SL – in her own name, and proudly listed herself as its owner on her LinkedIn profile.
Sarah became the master of a double life, finishing her master’s degree, working in bars and hotels for long hours and little money, renovating and managing a beachside rental apartment called Mar I Sol, and learning to teach English as a foreign language on a course in Barcelona while ciphering the tainted cash.
“I assumed the money was her partner’s,” admits Loretta LaCour, who studied alongside Sarah on the TEFL course in 2010. “I don’t mean to be a snob, but we were just a different class to the other people there.”
The closest in age of an otherwise young cohort, Loretta and Sarah quickly formed a friendship, along with another mature student, Anthony Jenkins. “She wasn’t dripping in gold or Rolex watches,” he says of Sarah, who by this point was raking in fraudulent profits. “She was elegant. Well dressed, but never flamboyant.”
“I don’t know whether I gravitated towards her or if it was the other way round,” says Loretta. “But I remember her being so friendly and inclusive. She knew I was on my own in Barcelona, and she invited me to stay with her more than twice.”
Sarah lived in the hills of the historic fishing village Vilanova i la Geltrú, in a gated community one hour from Barcelona’s city centre, with her two dogs and long-term partner. “It wasn’t the house of people that were about to go on the run,” says Loretta. “It was warm, welcoming and lived-in… but obviously, I was mistaken. It’s like when people say that the serial killer who lived next door was a really nice man.”
In the summer of 2005, HMRC began to notice irregularities in the operation’s bank transactions. Sarah had wired huge quantities of cash to global offshore bank accounts. After a lengthy 21-month investigation into the multimillion-pound scam, dubbed “Operation Vaulter”, authorities conducted a series of morning raids up and down the UK in September of 2007.
Loretta was one of the last people to speak to Sarah before she vanished. “Sarah rang me and said she was going back to England,” she says. “I realised later that was for the trial. She said she didn’t have much time and she’d call me when she got back. Of course, she never did. That was the last time I ever heard of her.”
“Everyone involved in our case pleaded not guilty,” says lawyer Abbas Lakha, who was present at the trial. “They essentially ran confess and avoid defences. They largely accepted what they were supposed to have done [bought and sold consignments of phones] but maintained they had no idea their sales were part of a bigger fraud carousel.”
But Sarah didn’t stick around to see if the defence would work. Before the gavel hit the block, she was gone.
According to the National Crime Agency, Sarah was last spotted in Spain. Just as she’d left the country in the wake of her father’s own criminality, she now fled the country in May of 2013 at the crescendo of her own, with hopes to outrun the authorities forever.
In her absence, Sarah was sentenced to eight years in prison, a duration that was extended by a further nine years after she failed to pay a confiscation order from HMRC for over £2.4 million of her criminal profits.
Sarah’s brother Leon claims not to have heard from her since she absconded, and declined to comment for this piece, telling VICE politely but firmly over messages that “the whole saga has been incredibly difficult for everyone involved”.
After Sarah vanished, her parents contacted James to tell him they were visiting the Costa Blanca, where he’d moved with his family, and wanted to meet for a drink. “I thought, ‘Oh, I bet it’s to see Sarah’,” he says. “We met at one of the little bars we used to drink in, up the road from their apartment. It was normal chit chat… I was like, ‘Come on, elephant in the room. What’s the crack? What’s she been doing?’”
Paula told James very few details. James remembers her saying something like: “‘You probably know as much as we do. Sarah’s been a bit of a naughty girl and got involved with the wrong people.’”
When his daughter first became the most wanted woman in Britain, in 2016, Leo told the Daily Mail it was a “shock” to hear she was on the NCA’s list, saying it felt “terrible”. Tragically, Sarah’s father died of natural causes during the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown, on the 22nd of April, 2020.
“I watched the funeral over Zoom,” says James. “Even though I haven’t met Sarah for a long, long time, I know she’ll be heartbroken that she couldn’t have been there to see her dad’s funeral, and be with her mum and brother to support them. That must be playing on her mind every minute of every day. I can’t see her being that callous that she wouldn’t be thinking about that all the time, because that isn’t what she was like.”
Yet, mourning was not enough to push Sarah from hiding. She has been so successful in outsmarting the authorities that police even resorted to asking British holidaymakers to help them find Sarah in 2019, after six years of fruitless searching: “5ft 5 inches tall, slim build with mousy straight hair, blue eyes and a Yorkshire accent,” the National Crime Agency briefed the public.
Wherever Sarah is, her teenage companion James still remembers her and the summers they spent cliff diving and listening to Celine Dion: “I drive past that little bar that Sarah and I used to drink in, the place we used to go walking, the garage we used to go and get our cigarettes from, the flat I see every day…”
He tries to imagine where Sarah is today. “It makes you think: is she on our doorstep? Do I see her when I go shopping? Would I recognise her? I don’t look like we did when we were together. I’m sure she doesn’t.” But he doesn’t think he’ll see her again.
“She’s done what she’s done. If you can stay on the run – you stay on the run.”
By Lydia Spencer-Elliott, August 11, 2021, Published on Vice