A sheep farmer has been jailed for 14 years for a cryptocurrency blackmail plot that saw him plant baby food laced with shards of metal in Tesco stores.
Nigel Wright, 45, hatched a plot to get rich by deliberately contaminating jars of Heinz baby food between May 2018 and February 2020.
He sent dozens of letters and emails to the supermarket giant in a bid to extort £1.4 million in bitcoin.
Two mothers – one in Lockerbie and the other in Rochdale – were just moments away from feeding their infants the food before they spotted the potentially lethal contaminants.
Wright spiked the jars with broken-up blades of a craft knife and iron filings.
At trial, Wright denied masterminding the plot – claiming instead that he was himself being blackmailed by a group of travellers who had threatened to kill his children and rape his wife.
But he was convicted of two counts of contaminating goods and three counts of blackmail for demanding cryptocurrency from Tesco in exchange for revealing where the contaminated food had been placed by a jury at the Old Bailey in August.
He was also convicted of a further charge of blackmail for demanding £150,000 worth of bitcoin from a driver with whom he had had a road rage altercation in an anonymous letter.
At his sentencing hearing on Monday, Mr Justice Warby compared Wright’s actions to terrorism, saying: “Here, the fear that you relied on when you blackmailed Tesco was that babies would be caused serious injury by eating food contaminated with sharp pieces of metal.”
He said: “You were under no pressure from others, or from circumstances.
“It is not as if you had – for instance – a legitimate grievance against Tesco, nor can any other explanation easily be identified for engaging in this series of repulsive actions, apart from greed.
“You chose to use threats of a particularly blood-curdling nature, deliberately designed to exploit the vulnerability of children, and the consequent vulnerability of a supermarket concerned for its business.”
Justice Warby said Wright had been “remorseless” and “clearly revelling in the process”.
He jailed Wright for 11 years for the plot against Tesco, with a further three years for the anonymous letter sent to the driver, in which he threatened to execute him with a rifle and murder his wife and children.
Justice Warby described the letter as “fit to chill the blood”.
The investigation into Wright – named Operation Hancock – became the largest blackmail investigation ever conducted in the UK.
At various points during the investigation there were more than 100 officers deployed across the country on the case working day and night shifts.
In one draft note, Wright wrote: “Imagine a baby’s mouth cut open and blood pouring out, or the inside of their bellies cut and bleeding. You pay, you save them.”
He signed off his letters and emails as the “Guy Brush and the Dairy Pirates”, claiming to be part of a cohort of farmers angry at the low price they were paid for their milk.
Tesco was forced to issue a product recall when a mother from Lockerbie discovered pieces of metal in a jar of Heinz sweet and sour chicken baby food.
In December 2019, Morven Smith had already fed a few spoonfuls to her 10-month-old baby when she spotted “something shiny” in the bowl and pulled it out.
She said: “It was horrendous. I felt sick I was so shocked.”
A second mother later came forward in Rochdale to say she too had discovered metal while feeding her nine-month-old daughter.
Harpreet Kaur-Singh told Tesco she had found shards of metal in a jar of Heinz Sunday chicken dinner and a jar of cheesy pasta stars.
In all, 42,000 jars of Heinz baby food were recovered, although there is no evidence that any more had been tampered with.
The total cost to Tesco of the recall, refunds and investigation was an estimated £2.7 million.
When Wright was tracked down to his family home outside Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, in February this year, police found photographs of contaminated baby food on his laptop – with some the same flavour as the Rochdale jars.
Officers also recovered some £100,000 in bitcoin which had been sent by undercover officers during the investigation.