Ritain’s most wanted woman is languishing in a Spanish prison cell after being arrested following nearly a decade on the run.
Privately-educated university graduate Sarah Panitzke, 47, was held on Sunday by officers from an elite-Madrid based police unit as she walked her dog near her home.
The property developer’s daughter was wanted over a massive mobile phone VAT fraud in which she played a key role by laundering up to one billion pounds.
She was sentenced in her absence to eight years in jail in August 2013 after absconding during her trial at Kingston Crown Court and she has been on the run ever since. She pleaded not guilty.
UK holidaymakers were asked to help catch the convicted fraudster, from Fulford near York, in a recent appeal for information on the whereabouts of fugitive killers, sex attackers and drug traffickers.
She was said to have “disappeared into thin air” after becoming the only woman on the National Crime Agency’s Most Wanted List. Monday night she was said to be in a prison near Madrid ahead of her expected extradition of her.
Well-placed sources confirmed she had been held on Sunday.
The arrest was carried out by the Civil Guard Central Operative Unit’s Fugitive Task Force.
The specialist Madrid-based unit was the same one that arrested Irish fugitive gang boss Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch last August near his hideaway in the Costa del Sol resort of Fuengirola.
One insider said: “Panitze was out walking her dog when she was arrested.”
Initial reports said the 5ft 7in blonde had been held in the town of Vilanova i la Geltru a 45-minute drive south of Barcelona and close to the famous resort of Sitges, although police are expected to confirm later that she was arrested in a village in the Catalan province of Tarragona.
Spanish news website El Confidencial, which broke news of Sunday’s arrest late on Monday, said she was fighting her forced return to the UK. Panitzke was included on the list of Britain’s most wanted fugitives after absconding in May 2013 before the end of her trial as a senior member of a crime group involved in VAT fraud.
Eighteen members of the crime group received sentences totaling 135 years. Police said in an appeal in August 2019 she was responsible for laundering approximately one billion pounds.
There has not yet been any official comment from the Civil Guard. Two UK customs officials asked to attend her extradition hearing, according to El Confidencial. The Madrid-based judge, who ordered her remand in prison while she fights her forced return to the UK, has been named as Joaquin Gadea.
No one could be reached on Monday night at the Audiencia Nacional, the court which deals with extradition issues. Panitzke, who went to York College for Girls before moving on to fee-paying St Peter’s School which is the third oldest in the world, came from a wealthy family.
Her dad Leo was a residential property developer and insurance broker.
She was arrested when she was 19 for buying council houses and selling them on early for a large profit and was subsequently sentenced to four years in prison.
Panitzke was recruited into notorious tax criminal Geoffrey Johnson’s web of 18 fraudsters located throughout the UK after meeting an acquaintance.
She has been described as the launderer of cash from a mobile phone VAT fraud who traveled to places like Dubai, Spain and Andorra to “clean” the money the gang had stolen.
Panitzke was part of a group of companies that bought cheap mobile phones in overseas countries without VAT, then sold them in the UK for a big profit.
Operation Vaulter, the codename given to HMRC’s investigation into the fraud gang, led to a trial at Kingston Crown Court.
Her links to Spain were well-known and she is believed to have been allowed to travel to and from her then-home on a gated residential estate in Vilanova i la Geltru where she had been based during her trial.
At the time, she was said to have been living in the coastal town with two dogs and a long-term partner and doing “front jobs” as a hotel worker and property investor.
Recent reports said she would face 17 years’ incarceration if caught because her non-payment of a £2.4 million confiscation order meant further time had been added to her prison sentence.
She remained the only member of the 18-strong gang on the run because ringleader Geoffrey Johnson was arrested in Dubai in 2017 and subsequently sentenced to 24 years in prison.
In 2016 when she first became Britain’s ‘Most Wanted Woman’, her father told the Daily Mail it was a “shock”. He died in April 2020.
Her brother Leon told Vice magazine last year: “The whole saga had been incredibly difficult for everyone involved.”
The Costa del Sol was flagged up as a possible hideaway for Panitzke after she went on the run.
Police described her in their Wanted Appeal as “170cm tall, slim build with mousey straight hair, blue eyes and a Yorkshire accent.
She was the only woman on the National Crime Agency most-wanted list and had been for most of the eight years she was on the run.
The NCA had said in an earlier appeal: “She controlled the company accounts of many companies remotely via different IP addresses.
“Panitzke traveled extensively to further the fraud to places including Dubai, Spain and Andorra.
She was responsible for laundering approximately POUNDS one billion.” A Google link to the NCA appeal on her appeared not to be working on Tuesday.