How Britain’s most wanted woman vanished into thin air: Sarah Panitzke was a private schoolgirl from York who laundered £1bn stolen from YOU in a mobile phone tax scam. She was caught and put on trial… but then disappeared
They’re Britain’s most wanted criminals — with the faces to prove it. Among them is a man who stabbed and paralysed his victim with a machete, another who raped a seven-year-old girl, one who killed a teenager with a 12-gauge shotgun and yet another who flooded Britain’s streets with heroin worth millions of pounds.
Twenty of the 21 people pictured on the National Crime Agency’s Most Wanted List are just as you’d expect from hardened career offenders — cruel-looking men with scars and menacing stares.
But the 21st face is an anomaly: a woman, 5ft 7in, with ‘mousey’ hair and blue eyes. She seems an unlikely lawbreaker, but in fact she helped perpetrate an astonishing scam — one that you paid for.
Sarah Panitzke, 47, has evaded the efforts and impressive resources of the National Crime Agency, HMRC, Europol and Crimestoppers, as well as multiple public appeals for information on her whereabouts
Sarah Panitzke, 47, played a key role in an 18-strong gang in which she laundered up to £1billion, much of it stolen from the British taxpayer.
Her 17 co-conspirators have now all been caught, convicted and sentenced — yet, sensationally, and to the ongoing fury of investigators, she remains at large having absconded before the trial had concluded.
For eight years, Panitzke has evaded the efforts and impressive resources of the National Crime Agency, HMRC, Europol and Crimestoppers, as well as multiple public appeals for information on her whereabouts. If — or when — she is caught, she now faces 17 years behind bars, as well as owing millions to you and me.
In Yorkshire this week, her middle-class family spoke out to distance themselves from her crimes. And last night, HMRC renewed its appeal for information on one of its tricksiest fugitives.
This week, the Mail uncovered a previously unseen photo of Sarah, taken in 1983, as a nine-year-old pupil at York College for Girls
Circled, Panitzke in 1983. She was a bright student but a rebel who would sneak off to parties, drink and smoke
The gang were arrested, and at their trial at Kingston Crown Court in 2013, 39-year-old Sarah and her co-conspirators pleaded not guilty
So where could Panitzke be today — and how on earth did an angelic, studious public schoolgirl become Britain’s most wanted woman? Certainly, there was nothing in her privileged upbringing that could have predicted such disgrace.
The eldest of two siblings, Sarah grew up in a large detached house in the picturesque village of Escrick, near York. This week, the Mail uncovered a previously unseen photo of Sarah, taken in 1983, as a nine-year-old pupil at York College for Girls. A proud-looking blonde girl, she wears an intense expression.
‘Her family were all flash cars, big houses and suntans,’ an old friend, who grew up with her in the 1970s, told the Mail this week. On the family driveway were said to be parked Porsches, BMWs and Mercedes.
He added: ‘They always seemed to have plenty of money and were always going on holidays in the sun. Sarah was very bubbly and there was nothing cloak-and-dagger about her then. But she was very confident for her age. You could tell from the way she spoke to everyone in her posh voice.’
From a young age, Sarah was a popular girl and mixed with wealthy families in her village, including that of a Conservative councillor.
Sarah’s father, Leo, hailed from Durham (the surname is thought to be German originally), and her mother, whom the Mail has chosen not to name for legal reasons, gave birth to Sarah in her early 30s.
For eight years, Panitzke has evaded the efforts and impressive resources of the National Crime Agency, HMRC, Europol and Crimestoppers. (Pictured, Europol headquarters, The Hague)
Two years later, brother Leon arrived, and together with dog Ben, they seemed to comprise the perfect family.
Leo Panitzke was earning enough as a residential property developer and insurance broker to be able to send both of his children to the highly prestigious St Peter’s School in York, the third-oldest school in the world (founded in 627AD), where boarding fees today can reach £34,500 per child annually.
And she was bright, studying ten GCSEs and three A-Levels, and being commended by the school magazine as an ‘outstanding’ debater. Yet even at 13, young Sarah appeared to be something of a rebel.
She set her eyes on one boy, several years her senior, who recalled this week that ‘she was just a kid, but she more or less said to me to come back and see her when she was a few years older’.
At home, her parents constructed a bar at the end of their garden, complete with a pool table and TV, for Sarah to host friends instead of sneaking out to party.
But that didn’t stop her. ‘We’d hang out in central York and go drinking and smoking, and do all the things we shouldn’t have been doing,’ her ex-boyfriend James Brooks, 47, told Vice magazine this week. ‘She wasn’t one for going shopping with the girls. She’d rather go and have a pint and a fag with the lads.’
Teenage summers were spent on the Costa Blanca, where her parents had a second home, and from where Sarah would fearlessly free-dive off cliffs into the sea.
These experiences prompted her to study Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University with ambitions of owning a hotel.
Then came a turning point in life. In 1993, when she was 19, Sarah’s father Leo was arrested for buying council houses and selling them on early for a large profit. An investigation was ordered and he was subsequently sentenced to four years in prison.
‘Her dad was always propping up the bar in the Black Bull in Escrick, buying drinks for everyone,’ said one local, who asked not to be named.
‘He seemed like a jolly fellow. He was loud and brash. He called himself a pensions adviser. But a lot of people said he was more like a conman. There was a lot of talk about him fleecing people and getting away with it for years.’
During Leo’s stint in prison, Sarah and her mother would visit him — disrupting the girl’s studies at university.
Letters sent by Sarah to her boyfriend at the time, seen by the Mail and written from her university digs, reveal her state of mind.
‘The situation I was in this summer is probably one of the worst I have ever been in, what with my dad being in prison and a two-year relationship ending,’ she wrote in October 1993.
Sarah was the launderer, holding the purse strings and travelling to Dubai, Spain and the tax haven principality of Andorra to clean the money the gang had stolen. (Pictured, Dubai city centre)
In another letter, she apologises for not being able to visit her boyfriend, who has asked us not to name him.
‘I am visiting father on Saturday from 1.30 to 3.30 so that’s the afternoon almost taken up’, she writes, referencing her father’s incarceration in Thorp Arch in West Yorkshire, now HMP Wealstun.
‘He is still in a bad mood. Let’s hope it gets better soon because he really is upsetting mum.’
In a letter dated the next day, she adds romantically: ‘My bed is boring and wasted without you here.’
When Leo left prison, Sarah travelled to Barcelona to study for a master’s degree in Business Management.
Over the next decade in Spain, she learnt French and Catalan, worked for property rental companies and volunteered in local not-for-profit groups.
But at some point, she became embroiled in white-collar crime of her own. She met an acquaintance of the notorious tax criminal Geoffrey Johnson, now 78, who recruited her into his web of 18 fraudsters located throughout the UK, from Sussex to Scotland.
Together, the group established a complex network of companies that bought mobile phones VAT-free from Europe, then sold them in the UK for higher, tax-inclusive prices. After the phones were sold, the company would disappear without paying anything to HMRC in a scam known as ‘missing trader intra-community fraud’ (MTIC).
Their network organised a ‘carousel’ of companies which shifted the money around, enabling them to then ‘claim back’ tax that had never in fact been paid — thereby robbing the public purse twice.
‘At one stage there were more mobile phones being purchased and exported by a single crime syndicate in the space of a month than actually bought or sold in the country as a whole,’ lawyer Abbas Lakha told Vice magazine.
Sarah was the launderer, holding the purse strings and travelling to Dubai, Spain and the tax haven principality of Andorra to clean the money the gang had stolen.
The VAT fraud was so successful that, all in all, she laundered over £1billion over several years.
Throughout the scam, Sarah kept up appearances, maintaining front-jobs as a hotel worker and property investor.
With her two dogs and long-term partner, she lived in a gated community in the hills of the historic fishing village Vilanova i la Geltrú, an hour from the centre of Barcelona. Friends in the Spanish city said that while she seemed well-off, they didn’t suspect a thing.
But she made sure to enjoy the fruits of her labours, regularly frequenting the nearby town of Sitges — known as the ‘Saint Tropez of Spain’ due to its mega-mansions and wealthy European residents — enjoying fine dining and expensive wine.
By 2005, however, when she was around 31, the taxman had smelled a rat. HMRC began to notice suspicious activity in some of Sarah’s accounts, and conducted a 21-month investigation into the fraud gang, code-named ‘Operation Vaulter’.
The gang were arrested, and at their trial at Kingston Crown Court in 2013, 39-year-old Sarah and her co-conspirators pleaded not guilty. They claimed they sold phones, but that they weren’t aware the sales were part of a fraud carousel.
The jury refused to accept this, and the gang’s 18 members received sentences totalling 135 years. Sarah was handed an eight-year sentence.
But before the trial had concluded, Sarah somehow managed to disappear, having been granted bail and having not been asked to surrender her passport.
The Mail has learnt she was permitted to travel to and from Spain during the trial, and one day she simply did not return. At the very least, this raises serious questions of those whose job it was to watch her. She was convicted and sentenced in her absence.
Police believe Sarah absconded to Spain — possibly to the notorious ‘Costa del Crime’, home of organised crime gangs on the Costa del Sol. (Pictured, a beach on the Costa del Sol)
Three years later, a confiscation order was made against her, meaning that if she didn’t repay £2.4 million, further time would be added to her prison sentence.
The deadline for this has long passed. If Sarah is ever apprehended, she now faces a total of 17 years’ incarceration.
In 2017, the ringleader Geoffrey Johnson — who had also been on the run with his son Gareth — was arrested in Dubai using a fake passport, having travelled there from Tanzania and Kenya.
The Scot was sentenced to 24 years in prison and ordered to repay the public £109 million. Now, Sarah is the only member of the 18-band crime ring still on the run.
Following the trial, her family spoke of their shock at the extent of her crimes. In 2016, when she first became Britain’s ‘Most Wanted Woman’ at the age of 42, her father Leo told the Mail it was a ‘shock’ to hear she was on the NCA’s list, saying it felt ‘terrible’.
Her brother Leon, who now works as the director of a communications agency and whose wife is the CEO of a charity, also told Vice magazine this week that ‘the whole saga has been incredibly difficult for everyone involved’.
Approached this week at the Yorkshire home she shared with Sarah’s father Leo, Sarah’s mother refused to speak.
Other family members were also keen to distance themselves from Sarah’s crimes. ‘We in no way condone what Sarah has done,’ said an elderly female relative in Hull, who declined to be named. ‘At the time it was an enormous shock for the family… I expect the truth will come out one day and then everyone will know the full story.’
In April last year, Leo Panitzke passed away at the age of 78. Needless to say, Sarah did not attend the funeral.
‘I know she’ll be heartbroken that she couldn’t have been there to see her dad’s funeral, and be with her mum and brother to support them,’ her ex-boyfriend told Vice. ‘That must be playing on her mind every minute of every day.’
Police believe Sarah absconded to Spain — possibly to the notorious ‘Costa del Crime’, home of organised crime gangs on the Costa del Sol — using a fake identity. But eight years later, she could be almost anywhere.
When she first disappeared, some friends on social media wished her luck in her new life on the run. ‘Hope she is sunning herself on a beach somewhere, drinking cocktails,’ wrote one. The private school girl has outfoxed everyone.
Have you seen Sarah Panitzke? Call the HMRC fraud hotline on 0800 788 887 or (0)203 080 0871
Additional reporting: MARK BRANAGAN
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