Smugglers busted: Catering staff entered flights with food, left with gold
Two employees of Skygourmet Flight Kitchen, who planned to leave with food carts laden with gold bars worth Rs 1.65 cr retrieved from 4 aircraft were nabbed in an action-packed 3-hr operation
In a case that is testament both to the ingenuity of people smuggling gold into the country and the tenacity of those tasked with apprehending them, officers of the Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) nabbed four smugglers and seized gold worth Rs 1.65 crore in a three-hour operation packed with edge-of-the-seat action yesterday.
Siraj Mohammed Sayed and Abdul Razak Shaikh
The confessions of two employees of an airline catering company and two men who were supposed to receive the consignments have revealed that they were part of a well-oiled machine, which relied on clever and meticulous planning to smuggle gold into the country. The catering company’s employees admitted that they had successfully cleared at least 30 smuggled gold consignments.
The smugglers finally met their match in a Mumbai Customs team. Acting on a tip-off, the AIU officials laid a trap for the two employees and, having nabbed them while they were about to retrieve gold consignments from under aircraft seat cushions, manipulated them into leading the team to their handler.
The handler decided to make a run for it, leading to a filmy car chase, which ended in the AIU team ramming their vehicle into the taxi he was in. The handler then led the team to another man, who he was supposed to hand over the gold to.
Abdul Razak Shaikh and Siraj Mohammed Sayed, employees of Skygourmet Flight Kitchen, were caught by AIU officials around 4.30am yesterday, when they were about to attempt a series of gold retrievals from Jet Airways’ aircraft that had arrived from various Gulf countries.
Based on their confession, gold was seized from 4 flights and logged as unclaimed seizures because even the accused allegedly do not know the identity of the men who kept the gold in the aircraft in the Gulf countries. The gold was concealed beneath the seat cushion and the seat numbers were sent to the two employees by their handler via WhatsApp.
In the first case, seven gold bars, weighing 816 gm in all and valued at R19.18 lakh, were seized from 9W 543 (Dubai-Mum, which arrives in the city around 2.55 am). Twelve gold bars, weighing 1,405 gm and valued at Rs 34.85 lakh, were then recovered from 9W-583 (Abu Dhabi-Mumbai, which arrives at 2.40 am).
The third recovery was made from Kuwait-Mum flight 9W 571, which arrives around 3.05 am. Eleven gold bars worth Rs 31.1 lakh and weighing 1,280 gm, were seized. The fourth aircraft, 9W 539 (Muscat-Mum, which arrives around 4.30 am) had two bars weighing 1 kg and 12 biscuits weighing 10 tolas weighing 3,283 gm in all and valued at Rs 78.83 lakh.
A total of 6.79 kg of gold, valued at Rs 1.65 crore was recovered. The AIU team then went on to arrest the handler, Vijay Tamhanekar from outside a five-star hotel near T2. Tamhanekar told them about Shahabuddin CA, who was waiting for him outside a fast food outlet in Andheri(East), and he was picked up from there. A search at Sayed’s residence in Jari Mari led to the recovery of R5.8 lakh in cash.
Kiran Kumar Karlapu, Assistant Commissioner of Mumbai Customs said, “This is a unique case where we have caught two receivers outside. The employees have admitted to clearing gold at least 30 times in the past. We are looking into whether there were any security lapses by the employers.”
>> In a bid to catch the catering company employees red handed, the AIU team allowed Shaikh and Sayed to get into the plan of action, they were allowed to enter inside the aircraft that was their first target - the Dubai-Mumbai flight 9W 543 - around 4.30 am.
Vijay Tamhanekar was to hand over the gold to Shahabuddin (right)
>> “Since the duo noticed the officers, however, they had to be apprehended earlier than the team had planned and they could not catch them red-handed. The employees were interrogated by the officers and it was found that they were supposed to retrieve gold from other planes as well,” said a Customs official.
>> “Tamhanekar communicated with Shaikh via WhatsApp. Every time he got confirmation that the gold had been recovered from one aircraft, he sent Shaikh the seat number for the next one. We wanted to catch hold of the man behind the smuggling racket and, hence, asked Shaikh to keep replying to the questions he asked. Some members of the team went to each aircraft and recovered the gold,” he added.
>> After the final consignment was recovered, the AIU officials made Shaikh call Tamhanekar and it was decided that he would meet them outside a five-star hotel near T2. The AIU team followed Shaikh, who was in a cab, from a distance, and saw Tamhanekar approach in a taxi.
>> Tamhanekar sensed something was amiss and, in a bid to flee, asked his driver (who seemed to be trained) to speed up. The AIU team’s driver, Allaudin, gave chase and, after covering some distance, rammed the cab forcing it to halt.
>> Tamhanekar revealed that he reported to Shahabuddin, who was picked up by the team near Andheri station at 7.30 am.
Air Intelligence, Unit official
This is a unique case wherein two of the men who were supposed to receive the gold were also apprehended outside the airport. This case also points to the lax security of Jet Airways. Staff entering the aircraft are not supervised or frisked, as evidenced by the brazenness of the modus operandi
Jet Airways spokesperson
Carrying gold on flights from the Middle East is not banned but it needs to be declared to Customs on arrival in India. Screening of baggage and frisking of staffers entering the aircraft is done by security agencies of the respective countries. - Skygourmet refused to comment on the matter.