One of the UK’s most wanted tax fugitives has been jailed for eight years after spending nine years on the run.

Sarah Panitzke, originally from York, played a leading role in a vast multi-million-pound VAT fraud and became one of the UK’s most wanted criminals after absconding during her trial in 2013.

In February, the 48-year-old was arrested while walking her dogs in Spain in an operation led by the Spanish Guardia Civil, working alongside HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Panitzke launched an appeal against extradition proceedings, which failed, and she was returned to the UK by HMRC. On 10 June 2022, she appeared at Kingston Crown Court and was jailed for eight years.

She played a pivotal role in a sophisticated multi-million-pound fraud gang that laundered extraordinary volumes of stolen money through offshore bank accounts. The gang set up numerous businesses claiming to be legitimately importing and selling mobile phones, but the businesses were a front for an elaborate scheme to steal more than £20 million in VAT repayments.

Despite going to great lengths to hide the criminal profits, HMRC investigators uncovered a complex web of transactions they used to launder stolen money through bank accounts in the UK, Andorra, Dubai, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Portugal and the US.

Panitzke fled to Spain during her trial in 2013 and was convicted and sentenced in her absence to eight years in prison. She and her 17 co-conspirators were given sentences totalling 135 years for the multi-million-pound VAT fraud.

In 2016 and whilst still on the run, a court also ordered that she repay more than £2.4 million within three months or serve an extra nine years in jail.

HMRC believe that she had been hiding in Andorra and Spain for the last nine years and living under an assumed identity. She was captured after the Spanish Guardia Civil identified her in a village in the region of Tarragona.

Plainclothes officers from the Spanish Guardia Civil approached her on 27 February 2022, in the small town of Santa Barbara, near the Catalan coast.

She was arrested and subsequently returned to the UK by HMRC officers on 9 June 2022.