Four men have been sentenced for their role in a plot to flood Greater Manchester with duty free cigarettes and tobacco and launder their criminal profits.

The gang – Mark O’Neill, 50, of Littleborough, Rochdale; Christopher Bridgeman, 49, of Failsworth; Cyril Crowe, 57, of Harpurhey; and Gerard Melville, 49, of Newton Heath – were caught after an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

The investigation found that the men had been involved in storing and transporting illicit tobacco goods in and around the North West to evade £425,000 in UK taxes.

The men, all of whom were unemployed, were also caught with large amounts of cash – understood to be the profit from their criminal enterprise.

On a number of occasions the gang were observed meeting around the region, sometimes exchanging vehicles laden with cigarettes or cash. During searches of their vehicles, the storage premises they hired and their homes, vast amounts of cash associated with the illegal trade were found.

His Honour Judge Steiger said at sentencing, O’Neill “played a prominent and major role in the conspiracy” and “Crowe and Bridgeman were his trusted and reliable lieutenants” while Melville was “only involved in the conspiracy from April to June 2012” and therefore merited a lesser sentence.

O’Neill was sentenced to 46 months in jail, Bridgeman was sentenced to 31 months in jail, Crowe was sentenced to 31 months in jail, and Melville was sentenced to 22 months jail suspended for 12 months and a 200-hours community work order.

The illegal cigarettes were recycled as fuel for the National Grid. All cash and vehicles used by the gang were seized. A full financial investigation into their lifestyles and crime profits will be carried out under Proceeds of Crime legislation.

Sandra Smith, assistant director, criminal investigation, HMRC, said: “We are determined to tackle the illicit tobacco trade in Greater Manchester. These men moved smuggled cigarettes and illegal cash around the North West region and, as a result of our actions, we have disrupted criminals who used illegal tobacco as a commodity to fund their lifestyles.

“My message is clear to anyone engaged in this illegal activity. HMRC will pursue those who ignore the rules on the sale, storage and supply of illicit tobacco goods.

“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 or prison sentence. Anyone with information about the illegal trade in smuggled cigarettes and tobacco in the Manchester area should contact the Customs hotline on 0800 595000.”