Britain’s most wanted woman to fly to UK after losing extradition bid

·6-min read
University graduate Sarah Panitzke had asked Spanish judges to reject a UK extradition application  (PA)
University graduate Sarah Panitzke had asked Spanish judges to reject a UK extradition application (PA)

Britain’s ‘most wanted’ woman will be flown back to the UK in the next few days after losing her fight against extradition.

University graduate Sarah Panitzke had asked Spanish judges to reject a UK extradition application which would have led to her being made to serve an eight-year prison sentence over a multi-million pounds VAT fraud handed down in her absence by a London court in 2013.

She had demanded the right to be able to serve her sentence in Spain given her strong links to her “adopted homeland”.

But the judges ruled against her in an appeal and the 48-year-old fraudster, arrested in February in a Catalan village after nine years on the run, is now seeing out her last days in a prison near Madrid before being flown back to Britain to start her jail term.

The two months she has spent behind bars since her arrest by an elite Spanish anti-fugitive unit as she walked her dogs near her hideaway, seven years after she escaped a first police attempt to nab her with a wig and emergency rucksack, will be taken off the time she has to serve.

Panitzke’s high-profile February 27 arrest made headlines in Spain and the UK as she was the only woman on the National Crime Agency’s Most Wanted List.

The Yorkshire-born property developer’s daughter told Civil Guard officers who held her she had felt “hurt” to be likened the men linked to some of the UK’s most horrific violent crimes after her detention.

Tuesday it emerged she had reportedly been living for seven years before her arrest with fake Italian ID in the name of Antonietta Argiulo, although the name Maria Antonietta is believed to have been scrawled on a postbox outside the flat where she holed up.

Her hideaway was a three-bed maisonette on the outskirts of the small town of Santa Barbara in the province of Tarragona south of Barcelona.

Defence lawyers fought her extradition to the UK on the basis she had strong links to Spain having lived in the country since the mid-nineties and marrying a local man 17 years ago.

They said her husband had a life expectancy of just 10 years because of a liver transplant and would be unable to visit her in the UK if she was extradited.

The lawyers also alleged the crimes Panitzke was accused - and later convicted - of would have been spent under Spanish law in legal arguments rejected by a Madrid court on appeal.

The date for her return, expected to involve British police flying to Spain to take her into custody on a plane at Madrid’s Barajas Airport, has not yet been set.

A well-placed court source said Tuesday afternoon: “Sarah’s extradition has not happened yet but it will take place within days.”

Panitzke was sentenced in her absence to eight years in jail in August 2013 for laundering one billion pounds in a massive mobile phone VAT fraud after vanishing during her trial at Kingston Crown Court.

The Spanish and Catalan-speaking brunette, who went to the prestigious fee-paying St Peter’s School in York before studying Spanish at university, vanished into thin air while on trial for money laundering in May 2013.

She was convicted in her absence of laundering money through companies in Spain, Andorra and Dubai for a crime group that bought mobile phones abroad without VAT and resold them in the UK.

Panitzke was recruited into notorious tax criminal Geoffrey Johnson’s web of fraudsters located throughout the UK after meeting an acquaintance.

She remained the only member of the 18-strong gang on the run because ringleader Johnson was arrested in Dubai in 2017 and subsequently sentenced to 24 years in prison.

The head of the elite Civil Guard team tasked with leading the operation to catch Panitzke, called the Civil Guard Central Operative Unit’s Fugitive Task Force, said after the arrest: “Sarah told us in the car on the way to Barcelona after her arrest it had hurt her a lot that her mugshot had been included alongside all the men linked to violent and despicable crimes on the National Crime Agency’s Wanted List.

“She also claimed she had wanted to hand herself in but had never found the right opportunity. “She said she felt she had already done her time because she had been living in almost total isolation for several years cut off from family and friends.

“Her father died while she was on the run and she didn’t go to his funeral. “We asked Sarah why she had never been to visit him and she told us that while he was alive he made it clear he preferred not to see her than see her in jail.

“She also complained she was only able to buy a cheap gin for her gin and tonics as her money started to run out and not the more expensive gin she had always enjoyed.

“It was a case of: ‘I used to have a great life and now the life I lead is pitiful.’”

Neighbours in Santa Barbara said she would go swimming in the apartment block’s community pool during the quiet lunchtime hours but lived a very discreet life and rarely invited anyone into her home.

One of the officers involved in her arrest was an undercover cop who seven years earlier had inadvertently aroused her suspicions as he walked past her previous hideaway to get a closer look at her and try to confirm her ID. She ended up fleeing with a wig and emergency rucksack and staying on the run for another seven years.

Spanish police said after her detention she appeared to be continuing to protest her innocence despite her arrest, telling officers who accompanied her in the car-ride to Barcelona to be fingerprinted where she opened up after years of silence: “She said the ringleader was the one who was guilty of everything and she hadn’t done anything wrong and was not to blame.

“She called him the ‘fat bastard’ who had got her caught up in all of this. It’s a story we’re used to hearing when we arrest people who are on the run.

“There was a moment when she got a bit emotional but there wasn’t a flood of tears. I think it was more a question of her feeling relieved after going so long without speaking to anyone and suddenly seeing a lot of people focusing on her.”

The fraudster’s mum, 77-year-old widow Pauline Panitzke, reacted to news of her daughter’s arrest at her home in the sleepy village of Market Weighton, east Yorks, by saying: "At least, I know she is safe and well."

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