A soldier “desperate” for money joined a ring of migrant smugglers so he could pay off spiralling gambling debts prompted by the horror of seeing his best friend killed in action, a court has heard.
Lance Corporal Kyle Harris was jailed for three years on Friday for his part in the conspiracy which saw him earn £5,000 a time for smuggling Kurdish asylum seekers into the UK from the Calais Jungle.
The member of the Princess of Wales Regiment served two tours in Afghanistan before moving to the Barker Barracks in Paderborn, Germany.
While on leave, he would travel home hiding migrants in the boot of his car, Maidstone Crown Court heard.
The 30-year-old, dressed in a dark suit with white shirt and grey tie, wiped tears from his eyes as defence barrister Isabelle Gillard told the court how he battled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after seeing his best friend and colleague blown up by a bomb.
Private Thomas Lake, 29, died in 2011 while Harris was completing his second tour of an isolated part of Helmand Province.
He tried to save him but watched in vain as he died, Gillard said.
Described as a courageous and disciplined soldier who had served in the Army for six years in frontline infantry, Harris was trusted with “significant roles above his rank” and had an “exemplary disciplinary record” including several “significant achievements” such as winning medals for his work, Gillard said.
The Army was “his life” but after the death he became withdrawn and was “struggling with demons”, having nightmares and experiencing insomnia, Ms Gillard said, adding: “The events that day led directly in a downward spiral to him committing these offences.”
He was put on anti-depressants but given “very little assistance” by the Army mental health team so turned to drink, drugs and then became addicted to gambling using the base camp wifi late at night, racking up debts of £30,000 and so was “desperate for money”.
Judge Adele Williams gave him credit for pleading guilty to conspiracy to assist in unlawful immigration and money laundering – reducing his sentence to a total of three years in light of his personal circumstances.
She said: “You have served your country and suffered PTSD as a result of your service and witnessed the death of your best friend.”
Middlesbrough car wash owner Zinden Ahmed was jailed for 10 years for his part in the conspiracy and possession with intent to supply a class A drug after around 136 grams (5oz) of high-purity cocaine with the street value of £13,600 was found at his home.
The 36-year-old, who has two young children and has lived in the UK for 15 years, initially recruited Harris to bring his brother Huner Ahmed into the UK but the plot then became a “commercial” venture to bring in other Kurds.
Hadi Hassan was used as a go-between to reach out to migrants in the camps and arrange the crossings, the court heard.
The 35-year-old was jailed for two years and eight months after being brought back to the UK from Turkey to face the charges.
The conspiracy took place between March and May 2016.
Harris brought three people into the country to Nottingham, Peterborough and Banbury during several trips in April after arranging the details over text.
Ahmed arranged to pay Harris £2,500 in advance and a further £2,500 once each of the migrants had been delivered to the UK.
He met them at a McDonald’s restaurant in Coquelles – just outside Calais and close to the entrance to the Channel Tunnel.
Harris was arrested in May 2016 when an Iraqi and a Syrian migrant were found in the back of his car by border officials and was handed a suspended 21-month prison sentence after admitting the single offence.
He was dishonourably discharged from the Army and has since found work as a Surrey pub chain manager.
But he never volunteered any further information about the wider conspiracy and the court previously heard claims he boasted at the base about his escapades.
Walton Hornsby, prosecuting, said Harris needed “very little encouragement” and would have continued had he not been caught.
Andrew Hill, defending Ahmed, said he was a hard-working man who became “embroiled in criminality” after fulfilling his quest to bring his brother into the UK.
Judge Williams said: “This became a commercial operation despite the fact there were some humanitarian and loyalty motives.”
She acknowledged the “personal tragedy” of each defendant but said they had “no regard at all” for the need of the authorities to record and carry out checks on who was entering the UK and the “mischief” of their offending was to evade border officials.
Fellow serving soldier of the same regiment David Plumstead, 24, was cleared of the same charge at an earlier trial after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence for the case against him to proceed.