Five men have been sentenced for their role in trying to flood the UK with illicit cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost duty and taxes, and attempting to launder their criminal profits.

Irvin Dunn, 56, who orchestrated the fraud from behind bars, and his brother Wayne Dunn, 57, from South Yorkshire, were jailed for five years and 21 months respectively for their involvement in the distribution and sale of the illicit goods between January 2013 and October 2013.

Lee Pearson, 33, of South Yorkshire, was jailed for 12 months, suspended for 18 months, for his part in the conspiracy. Vincent McGeough, 68, from County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and James Woods, 58, from Dundalk, in the Republic of Ireland, were both sentenced to 12 months, suspended for 18 months for money laundering after the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) investigation.

The fraud began to unravel after HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) officers witnessed the handover of a bag containing almost £110,000 involving Woods and McGeough close to East Midlands Airport in April 2013. Woods was arrested immediately but McGeough fled, flagging down a car only to find it was being driven by an HMRC investigator. He was then arrested and mobile phones and the cash seized.

It soon became clear Wayne Dunn, already on bail after being stopped in Ipswich driving a van containing 800,000 illicit cigarettes in February 2013, was an associate. He was arrested shortly afterwards.

The development helped investigators link Wayne Dunn back to an unattended van found laden with 169,000 illicit cigarettes in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, in January 2013, from which records showing tobacco purchases and sales were seized.

Searches were carried out of Dunn’s home as the conspiracy unfolded, leading HMRC officers to his younger brother, Irvin Dunn, who appeared to be organising the fraud from his prison cell.

Pearson’s role was cemented in October 2013 after a van linked to the Dunn brothers was found outside barns in Everton, South Yorkshire that were used as storage premises and looked after by him. The vehicle was strewn with packets of tobacco and cigarettes after having its window smashed in a break-in.

HMRC attended and searched the two barns, where tobacco and more than 1,000 litres of illicit beer and vodka, which contained toxic methanol 150 times the legal limit, were discovered. Pearson was in charge of the premises and phone analysis showed he was part of the conspiracy.

Confiscation proceedings will follow to recover the proceeds of their criminal activity.

Stuart Taylor, assistant director, Fraud Investigation Service, HMRC, said: “These men all played a part in flooding the UK with illegal cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol solely to line their own pockets with money that should have been funding vital public services.

“Irvin Dunn even pulled the strings while he was in prison using coded messages. But their fraud has been broken down and picked apart and now they are all paying the price.

“The evasion of excise duty is a criminal offence. If you are caught you will not only have your goods seized but you may also face prosecution and, if convicted, a criminal record and potentially a prison sentence. Anyone with information about the illegal trade in smuggled cigarettes and tobacco should contact the Customs hotline on 0800 595000.”