In the small Scottish town of Lockerbie, a mother was feeding her 10-month-old some Heinz baby food.
But a few spoonfuls in, she spotted something metallic in the bowl—and instantly felt sick with shock.
Morven Smith had bought the jar from Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer. Little did she—or the supermarket chain—realize this would be the start the largest-ever blackmail investigation in the UK’s history, with anonymous demands for Bitcoin at its heart.
Tesco was receiving dozens of letters and emails, each signed off with the name “Guy Brush and the Dairy Pirates.” It was claimed that the gang were farmers who were disgruntled about the prices they were paid for milk.
The group said it had deliberately contaminated baby food with broken-up blades of a craft knife and iron filings—and told Tesco that, if it wanted to find out where the dangerous jars were planted, it would need to pay £1.4 million ($1.8 million) in Bitcoin.
One chilling draft note read at trial said:
“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.”
As another mother came forward after finding shards of metal in two baby food jars, the investigation gathered pace. At one point, more than 100 detectives were on the case—with Tesco taking tens of thousands of products off the shelves and spending £2.7 million ($3.5 million) on its own investigation, as well as refunds and recalls.
Now, a man has finally been brought to justice over the blackmail plot. Nigel Wright, a 45-year-old sheep farmer from Lincolnshire, was jailed for 14 years on Oct. 12.
Still the criminals’ crypto of choice
Bitcoin remains the currency of choice for many criminals, from ransomware hackers and terrorists to child pornography buyers, according to the Department of Justice—an opinion backed up by research from cryptocurrency intelligence firm Chainalysis.
At the same time, law enforcement has become more adept at tracing bitcoin transactions back to their source. So far there hasn’t been a significant movement by criminals to privacy coins like Monero, Dash and Zcash, largely because it is easier to sell BTC.
On Oct. 8, the U.S. Department of Justice released an extensive guide for law enforcement titled, “Cryptocurrency: An Enforcement Framework.”
The sentence followed an extensive trial at London’s Old Bailey—a courthouse where England’s most severe criminal cases are heard.
During the proceedings it emerged that Wright’s get rich quick plot had taken place between May 2018 and February 2020—endangering countless families.
Footage taken from one supermarket showed Wright tampering with baby food in a supermarket.
But Wright—himself a father of two—denied the prosecution’s claims that he was the mastermind of the plot. Instead, he said he himself was being blackmailed by a group of Travellers who had threatened to harm his children and rape his wife. Travellers as a group are the focus of much discrimination in the U.K., which can make them an easy scapegoat.
Despite his claims, a jury found him guilty of two counts of contaminating goods, and three counts of blackmail following the extortion attempt against Tesco.
Justice Warby, the judge who passed the sentence, was unflinching in his assessment of Wright’s actions—comparing it to terrorism.
“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,” Justice Warby said. “You were under no pressure from others, or from circumstances.”
The judge also dismissed any suggestion that there was a compelling explanation for Wright’s “series of repulsive actions,” rather than the fact he was greedy.
“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.”
Wright was also described as “remorseless” — and the judge claimed he was “clearly reveling in the process.”
Other Bitcoin extortion attempts
Eleven years of Wright’s sentence relates to the Tesco plot, but the remaining three years relate to a further charge of blackmail.
He also demanded £150,000 ($195,980) of Bitcoin from a motorist after suffering road rage—and in an anonymous letter that was “fit to chill the blood,” he threatened to execute the victim with a rifle, and kill his wife and children, unless the cryptocurrency was paid.
The investigation eventually led back to Wright. When he was found at his family home in Lincolnshire, photographs of contaminated baby food were discovered on his laptop.
Bitcoin worth £100,000 ($130,650) was also recovered—crypto that had been sent to the criminal by undercover officers over the course of the investigation, referred to in police circles as “Operation Hancock.” Detective Inspector Lucy Thomson said:
“Wright is a dangerous offender who gave no thought to the babies he could have harmed during his callous pursuit of money. He concocted an elaborate tale to try and cover his tracks, claiming he was being forced to carry out his crimes. The jury saw through his lies and found him guilty of all charges. Wright now faces a long time in prison where he can think about what he has done.”
And Hertfordshire Assistant Chief Constable Bill Jephson added: “I hope that the lengthy sentence handed down to Wright today acts as a deterrent to anyone who thinks blackmail is a viable criminal option.”