A 45-year-old sheep farmer was yesterday (October 12) jailed for 14 years after being convicted of blackmail and contaminating specific ranges of baby food.
Nigel Wright, a father of two, was unanimously convicted by a jury following a nine-day trial at London’s Old Bailey on August 20. The court had heard how he selected jars of Heinz baby food from Tesco supermarket shelves, took them home and set about contaminating them with metal shards. He then returned a small number of the contaminated jars to stores and threatened that babies would be seriously or fatally injured unless he was paid £1.5m.
His blackmail plot involved three victim companies – Tesco, Heinz and Cow & Gate.
The jury heard that two mothers discovered metal shards in the baby food they were giving their little ones. Thankfully no babies were injured.
During the investigation products were urgently recalled and in total 42,000 jars of baby food were recovered. There was no evidence that further jars had been tampered with.
Wright, from Market Rasen in Lincolnshire, was found guilty of three counts of blackmail and two counts of product contamination. He was also convicted of an unrelated offence of blackmail linked to a traffic dispute. The court heard how he tracked down a man he had been in a road rage incident with and sent him a threatening letter attempting to blackmail him into handing over £150,000 worth of Bitcoin.
During the trial Wright attempted to convince the jury that he had been forced to carry out the baby food blackmail plot by travellers who were threatening him but he was unable to provide any evidence to support his elaborate lie.
Jailing him His Honour Justice Warby described Wright’s action as ‘repulsive’ and said his threats were ‘of a blood curdling nature’. He described his motive as ‘grubby financial gain’.
He added: ‘You were remorseless and revelling in the process.’
Justice Warby described Wright as being full of self-pity but lacking in empathy.
‘The greatest mitigation you could have given was a guilty plea, instead you put forward an absurd and untenable case that fell apart under scrutiny,’ he said.
‘You were prepared to and did put vulnerable children at risk of serious injury. The offending caused shock, distress and expense, but mercifully did not cause injury but that was down to luck rather than good judgement.’
For the blackmail and contamination offences relating to Tesco, Heinz and Cow & Gate, Wright was jailed for a total of 11 years. For the separate blackmail offence relating to a road rage incident, Wright was jailed for three years to run consecutively. He must serve at least half of his sentence in custody before being released on licence.
His Honour Justice Warby also commended the work of the legal teams, the patience and care taken by the jury and praised the work of the investigative teams.
Wright was arrested on 25 February, following a major investigation led by the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit who were assisted by law enforcement partners including the National Crime Agency together with the victim companies.
Stretching across the country, the investigation – Operation Hancock – was the largest blackmail inquiry ever conducted in the UK and was also supported by specialist government departments – The Food Standards Agency, Food Standards Scotland, Public Health England, Public Health Scotland and Police Scotland.
Deputy Senior Investigating Officer, Detective Inspector Lucy Thomson from the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Major Crime Unit said: ‘Throughout this investigation our primary focus was always to protect public from harm and bring the person responsible to justice.
‘Wright is a dangerous offender who gave no thought to the babies he could have harmed during his callous pursuit of money. He concocted an elaborate tale to try and cover his tracks, claiming he was being forced to carry out his crimes. The jury saw through his lies and found him guilty of all charges. Wright now faces a long time in prison where he can think about what he has done.’
Detective Inspector Ian Kirby, from the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit (ERSOU) Cyber Crime Unit, said: ‘This was an incredibly challenging operation which involved the subject using a variety of methods to anonymise his communications and blackmail the victims.
‘Our dedicated cyber-crime team specialises in complex investigations and uses a wide range of tactics to target criminal behaviour online. They worked tirelessly alongside colleagues at the National Crime Agency to help support the investigation. Our priority is always to protect the public from harm and I’m pleased Wright has been brought to justice.’
Jim Stokley, Deputy Director of the NCA’s National Cyber Crime Unit, said: ‘This was a complex investigation into an extremely serious case of blackmail, targeting the most vulnerable in society.
‘The contamination of baby food products resulted in a comprehensive, whole-system response from UK law enforcement; partners from across local, regional and national policing collaborated to identify and arrest Wright. The investigation was led by the Major Crime Unit and supported closely by teams from across the NCA.
‘This custodial sentence sends a message that we will relentlessly pursue serious criminality in order to protect the UK public and businesses from dangerous individuals like Wright.’
Hertfordshire Assistant Chief Constable Bill Jephson, who led the inquiry, added: ‘I hope that the lengthy sentence handed down to Wright today acts as a deterrent to anyone who thinks blackmail is a viable criminal option. The police investigation was supported by a range of specialist government departments as well as the victim companies, who were highly responsive and operationally supportive. The resources available to law enforcement to respond to threats of this nature are significant and such crimes will simply not be tolerated.
‘I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to all those who played a part in bringing Wright to justice.’