When Trading Standards want to find a hidden stash of illegal tobacco, they normally require the expertise of a highly trained canine. One of the most sophisticated illegal tobacco concealments was found recently in a Derbyshire shop, thanks to Cooper, a four year old search dog who has undergone many months of specialist training. We talk to Stuart Phillips, possibly the UKs most experienced illegal tobacco search expert.
It started out like any other tobacco raid, but Friday the 10th of September would be a little different in Derbyshire. Ade Parkin is a Trading Standards Officer and the lead officer for tobacco with Derbyshire Trading Standards and regularly calls in Stuart Phillips, an expert at finding illegal tobacco with his trusted tobacco search dogs.
On Friday the 10th of September Ade Parkin, a number of Police Officers, an investigative reporter and photographer together with Stuart and his team of search dogs visited a shop in the old mining town of Ilkeston. A test purchaser had successfully purchased two packets of fake cigarettes only minutes before the enforcement team entered the high street shop.
Stuart had asked Ade for details about the test purchase and was told that the shop keeper had walked through a door behind the counter to retrieve the fake products before returning to hand over the dodgy cigarettes. The whole transaction had taken less than a minute.
I've been assisting Trading Standards on illegal tobacco operations for 10 years now, explains Stuart. Ade, like many other Trading Standards Officers I work with, rely on me and the dogs to get them results, so I'm not just a dog handler, I don't just turn up, search with the dog and leave. I want to know as much detail as possible, to use my dogs and find illegal tobacco. I do this every day of the week, this is not just my job, it's my small company and it's my reputation and finding illegal tobacco is something that I have dedicated the last 10 years to.
On entering the shop there's a slight delay whilst the shop keeper talks and tries to discourage the enforcement team from getting behind the shop counter. After a short delay Ade, Stuart and tobacco search dog Cooper go behind the counter, through a door way into a small area behind a wall of shelves. Stuart starts to search with Cooper whilst the shop keeper acts nervously, answering questions directed to him by Trading Standards and Police. The small room behind the counter area has a TV screen displaying comprehensive CCTV coverage of the front and rear approaches to the shop. A comfy chair, kettle and microwave are also located in this rest room type area, perfect for monitoring the CCTV, to see who is approaching.
Stuart completes his search of this small area and moves to the next big room which is full of rubbish, building materials, rotting food and other disgusting items that Stuart has to keep Cooper away from. Once this area is searched by Cooper, Stuart then moves up some stairs to a hall way area on a mezzanine, which leads to some toilets and more stairs for accessing the first floor. As Cooper is searching he is watched very closely by Stuart who is being watched by Rob the investigative journalist and Mark a professional photographer for a Sunday paper. All of a sudden there's a change in Cooper's behaviour, noticed by Stuart but not by anyone else. This change happened in the blink of an eye, but it was noticed by Stuart, who has trained and handled Cooper since he was no longer wanted by his former pet family home.
Stuart explains, People think that when a search dog finds something that it has to sit down, bark or even freeze, well this is not the case. All of my dogs are trained by me and handled by me only and I know my dogs like the back of my hand. When I'm searching I'm looking for the slightest change in behaviour from the dog, because that slightest change in behaviour could be the difference between finding something or missing something. No search dogs should be multi-handled, a search dog should have just one handler, because this is how you get to know your dog inside out. I have spent hundreds of hours training and working with Cooper and that is vital for providing Trading Standards with a professional and experienced search dog service. If you don't know your search dog because you don't work it all the time and share it with other handlers then there's a good possibility you'll miss changes in the dogs behaviour during a search, which will lead to concealments being missed. Changes in behaviour are of huge importance during a search.
The change in Cooper's behaviour happened in a hall way area on a mezzanine outside some toilets. Stuart asked everyone to get out of this area so he could now focus the search in the area where Cooper had a change in his behaviour. Asking Stuart about the change in behaviour he explains that Cooper's head almost whiplashed as he was searching and this could have happened for a number of reasons. A sudden recognition of tobacco odour is the most likely cause for this whiplash, possibly caused by air movement or a draft coming through the search area. He might possibly have scanned his nose past a crack in a wall or a door frame where tobacco odour was leaking from, or it could have been nothing at all, but because it happened I will now focus the search in the area where it happened, in the hope that Cooper picks up on it again.
After a couple of minutes focusing Coopers search in this hall way area, Cooper begins to investigate more thoroughly at floor level and skirting board level. Stuart watches Cooper's every move, he doesn't take his eye off him, not even for one moment. As Coopers search intensifies Stuart can be seen watching Cooper and looking at the walls, doors, the ceiling and the black and white chequered tiled floor.
What are you looking for Stuart? I'm pretty sure that there is something in this area because Cooper is now really intensifying his search, you can hear his nose sniffing constantly. I now need to use my search skills, which I've developed over the past 10 years to look for the signs of a concealment. I'm looking for scratches on doors frames, screws that look out of place, silicone sealant where you wouldn't expect there to be sealant and even dirty hand marks on walls and the ceiling. Illegal tobacco is concealed using unique methods, methods totally different to the way people would hide drugs, explosives and other items. Searching for illegal tobacco concealments is totally unique. I've had people out on searches with me from the Police, Regional Organised Crime Units, Customs and other agencies and they've been amazed at the methods and techniques used by criminal gangs to hide illegal tobacco products.
Cooper is now focusing his efforts on the floor, a black and white tiled floor that looks totally normal and not out of place at all. The tiles are pretty dirty and they just look normal, as you would expect in a run down shop building. As Cooper scans his nose over the floor, his snorting and sniffing becomes more and more intense. His nose is now focusing on the grout in-between a line of tiles and then all of a sudden his body stops moving, his head stops and his nose is touching the joint in-between two tiles, he's sniffing so loudly and inhaling all the air he can from between two tiles. Finally his whole body is still, his nose pushing against the floor and his tail stops, he freezes completely.
It's under the floor Stuart tells us, with a huge smile.
Before we can ask Stuart any further questions, he begins to tell us that the concealment will be a sophisticated concealment, using hydraulic rams, which at the push of a button, will raise a shelving system out of the ground, containing illegal cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco.
How do you know this Stuart ? I've seen this before, but this a very good example, they've put a huge amount of effort into this concealment, to disguise it. It's a very, very good concealment, professionally constructed. You would never have found this without a highly trained search dog and you wouldn't have found this with an inexperienced search dog and handler. I know Cooper is right and I know there is a concealment under there, but I only know this because I've got an excellent search dog and I've got 10 years experience and knowledge of finding concealment like this. Had you have come in here with an inexperienced dog and handler then this would have been missed for sure. Unfortunately that is happening around the country as there's a number of tobacco search dog teams offering their services and they shouldn't be.
I need some tools now, let's get this open.
Stuart gets some tools and starts to investigate the exact position that Cooper was pushing his nose onto. There's no debate with Ade Parkin about what might or might not be below the tiles, Ade trusts Stuart implicitly, why shouldn't he, Stuart does this every day somewhere in the UK, he's an expert in his field, quite possibly the most experienced and knowledgeable illegal tobacco concealment expert in the UK.
With a screwdriver and crowbar Stuart removes the tiles where Cooper had indicated. As the first tile is pulled up Stuart smiles again and confirms to everyone present that there is definitely a concealment under the fake floor. As the next few tiles are lifted a piece of plywood becomes visible and around the edge of the plywood is a strip of metal edging. Again, Stuart starts telling us exactly how the concealment is built and he hasn't even seen it yet. It's quite obvious that Stuart knows his stuff, he is an expert and you can see why Trading Standards Officer Ade Parkin insists on using Stuart and his search dogs for tackling the illegal tobacco trade in Derbyshire.
There should be a key fob to operate this concealment, but I doubt we'll find that, it's probably long gone, Stuart tells us. This will be a real difficult hide to open as they build them so well, we'll need a saw and other tools to access this properly and get all the tobacco out.
Ten tiles are lifted and all that is now visible is a piece of plywood, the lid to a container which hopefully contains a lot of tobacco. It's like something out of a James Bond film, you cannot believe that someone or a group of people would go to such lengths to hide some cigarettes, but then this shop will be part of an Organised Crime Group (OCG) and OCGs make millions of pounds a year selling fake and smuggled cigarettes and hand rolling tobacco. This particular shop will take between £1500 and £2000 per day, selling cheap tobacco, six days a week. That's about £50,000 per month or £570,000 a year. Let that sink in for a moment. No wonder they go to the lengths they do, to hide their stock.
Stuart uses a crowbar to lift the lid of the compartment, revealing a metal framed structure and two hydraulic rams at either end, exactly as Stuart had described before the great reveal.
Stuart now begins to saw another piece of plywood, watched by a team of officers from Trading Standards and Derbyshire Police. Finally after a few minutes, Stuart uses his boot to smash through the lid of the secret stash. Stuart smiles again and announces that he can see cigarettes as everyone in the room joins Stuart in smiling apart from the Kurdish shop keeper who was present throughout, guarded by Police Officers.
Again, Stuart explains to us how this concealment operates and states that he has seen about twenty of these, dotted around the country in other Kurdish operated shops. These are built by the the same person or the same team of people, they have all been identical. I've found them in Reading, Hull, Coventry, Medway and a number of other towns and cities. This is organised, really organised. You have to know what you're doing to build these concealmanets, they are professionally constructed and they have to be professionally installed, you need to know about electrics, carpentry and you need to be able to weld metal. If you look at the way this has been installed in this floor, you need to be a great craftsman as without a search dog, you'd never know it was there. They do such a great job, they've got it down to a fine art.
As the lid is removed from the concealment all becomes visible and you can now see packs of cigarettes, the vast majority are fake and bear the names of genuine cigarettes like Richmond, Regal, Benson & Hedges and others. Then, Stuart draws our attention to a jam jar with no lid placed amongst the fake haul of cigarettes. Stuart picks up the jar and smells it, it's bleach. They've put this in here to try and distract or put any potential sniffer dogs off. It hasn't worked though and I tell them this all the time, Stuart chuckles. Also placed in within the secret stash of cigarettes is a plastic box containing cloves, another attempt to put the dogs off.
Ade Parkin and his team start to remove and seize the contents of the secret concealment whilst telling us that this particular shop has a long history of selling cheap cigarettes and has had a number of individuals operating the shop over the past few years. Ade explains how the shop is just a front with shelves containing items with no real value, like toilet roll and jars of pickled items. No one comes into this shop to buy food or drink, they come in here for one thing only, packs of cigarettes which are sold for £5, fake or smuggled cigarettes.
With the top layer of cigarettes removed from the hydraulic shelving system, efforts are now concentrated at removing the next piece of plywood to access the next layer of shelving and after another few minutes of destruction, they're through. The second shelf is almost full, this time with counterfeit hand rolling tobacco, bearing the names of genuine tobacco brands like Amber Leaf and Golden Virginia. In total this floor concealment had 3 shelves containing illegal tobacco products and once removed filled two large seizure bags, with an estimated retail value of £3000 - £5000.
Not one to rest, Stuart and Cooper were re-searching the rest of the shop whilst officers were seizing and itemising the haul from the floor concealment. Unbelievably during a secondary sweep of the shop counter, Stuart located a disposable coffee cup and contained within the cup was a small remote control. Was it the remote that would operate the concealment already found, yes it was. It is thought that during the initial entry of the shop, the shop keeper hid the remote control device in the coffee cup. Stuart believes that illegal tobacco concealment would be kept open all the time, so the shop keeper would be able to access it quickly and with ease for customers requesting their cheap cigarettes. In the event of a raid by Trading Standards, Police or Customs the shop keeper who would be behind the counter would press the remote control and the sophisticated shelving system would drop to below ground level, hiding it's stash. This would certainly tally with what happened when Ade Parkin and Stuart tried to go behind the shop counter on this occasion, being delayed by the shop keeper, who was probably giving his secret shelving system time to drop into place.
We asked Stuart his thoughts about his work in this shop so far. This has been a fantastic result for Ade and Derbyshire Trading Standards. I'm so happy that Cooper identified this concealment and we were able to seize such a large quantity of illegal tobacco. Unfortunately this shop will be selling again in a few hours once we've left, but they're now going to have to think about constructing a new hiding place, which they probably will do. They're making too much money to stop selling cheap cigarettes and they've got an established customer base, so will need to meet the demand by selling again.
Tell us about Cooper and his fantastic nose Stuart and how it is different to other sniffer dogs? Cooper is actually quite young in service, he's been operational for about 12 months and that's after 6-8 months of training. He's a great search dog and is actually getting better all the time. Just like someone in a new job, it takes time for Cooper to build on his experience, but he's had a number of very good finds and is getting better and better at his job. All detection dog jobs are different, but tobacco detection dogs have a unique job really, there is no other job like it. The vast majority of the time Trading Standards expect us to find what they can't find and it's normally a concealment like we've found today, that a human search team cannot find. I have two other tobacco dogs, Scamp and Yoyo. Scamp is nine years old and now semi retired and during his eight year career has located illegal tobacco worth over £10 million. Scamp has received a number of awards for his great work over the years. Yoyo is still working, he's an eight year old Cocker Spaniel and again has found illegal tobacco worth over £6 million.
How many searches do you do a week and how many concealment have you found during your time as a tobacco detection dog handler? We are very busy at the moment, we're working with Trading Standards teams all over the country on Operation CeCe, the HMRC funded crackdown on the illegal tobacco trade. On average we search about 30 shops a week and may be a few houses and storage facilities. Over the last 10 years we've found over 750 concealments of varying types. An interesting fact for you. Last month the Met Police released some statistics on Twitter regarding their search dogs. In the last 12 months the Met Police dog section assisted with 233 warrants. In the last 8 months my 3 tobacco dogs and 1 cash dog have completed 466 warrants and inspections. That says something about the volume of our illegal tobacco search work.
Watching you today I could tell that you enjoy your work very much, is it a good job? Well, it's not my job, I think the day I start calling it my job is the day I will need to stop. The last 10 years, assisting Trading Standards, Police and Customs on illegal tobacco operations has turned into a real passion, so it's not just a job for me. I'm out doing these tobacco operations day in day out and I've managed to get quite a good reputation with the teams i work with. The Trading Standards teams I work with trust me and my dogs to help them locate illegal tobacco and that's my task and I don't like to fail. They say you're only as good as your last job and I need my last job to be a success every time. I've heard some bad things about other tobacco search dog companies who provide teams to Trading Standards, they come, search and leave, that's not what I do.
Are there many tobacco detection dogs and are all tobacco detection dogs the same? There's a few people operating tobacco detection dogs but they're not all the same. A problem that I've seen develop over the past year or so is more tobacco detection dog teams trying to get work. It takes me about 6-8 months to train a tobacco detection Dog like Cooper, but that is only the start really, he then needs to gain experience and carry out on the job training. People believe that once a dog has done some training to sniff out tobacco that's it, they can go on a Trading Standards operation and this is not the case. What's more worrying is that some Trading Standards teams have been hiring dog handlers who have done a two week course, been given a certificate and told they can do the job and I find this horrifying. It's taken me 10 years to get to where I am now, it's a constant learning curve. Prior to doing this work for 10 years I worked for the Ministry of Defence as a dog handler and have performed a number of other dog handling and instructor/trainer roles, I have over 20 years working dog experience. What I find worrying is that people think all tobacco detection dogs are the same, once they've had some training they can do the job, which couldn't be further from the truth. In the last two weeks I have been contacted by two different Trading Standards Officers who have had concerns over tobacco detection dogs and handlers they've hired for operations. In one case a novice tobacco detection dog and handler were asked to search several shops, where intelligence was strong that illegal tobacco was being sold and test purchases had been positive, the dog team found nothing. This was for an Operation CeCe exercise which turned out to be a total waste of time and tax payers money. I always say to people, if I had a consumer issue, would I want a Trading Standards Officer with 20 years experience or trainee to investigate it, I think you know the answer. Unfortunately sometimes you have people with very little knowledge booking tobacco detection dogs, who do think that all tobacco dogs are the same and so it turns into a tick box exercise rather than concerted effort to hire the best, most experience and knowledgeable team for the job. Like anything there are varying degrees of quality and experience but not all tobacco detection dogs are the same.
Stuart, thank you so much for talking to us.