Steven Greenoe purchased 63 pistols from gun shops in North Carolina and hid components in suitcases before carrying them to Britain

A former US marine who packed pistols into his luggage and smuggled them aboard commercial flights from the US to Britain has been jailed for 10 years by an American judge.

Steven Greenoe was accused of purchasing 63 pistols from gun shops in and around Raleigh, North Carolina and taking them apart before hiding the components in suitcases and carrying them to Britain, where they could be sold for 10 times the price he had paid.

The case, first reported last year, exposed serious flaws in aviation security and prompted incredulity in Washington and London.

Steven Cardwell, a 31-year-old Liverpool man who helped 38-year-old Greenoe smuggle guns, had previously been given an indeterminate sentence. Liverpool crown court heard that Cardwell obtained scores of weapons from Greenoe. He will not be eligible for parole for at least 11 years.

Cardwell was found guilty of conspiracy to import, sell and possess prohibited firearms with intent to endanger life following a four-week trial. Judge Elgan Edwards told Cardwell he had committed "extremely grave crimes".

Last year, the US lawyer George Holding said: "The magnitude of this case touches not only US citizens but also our great British allies."

After the sentencing on Tuesday, Brock Nicholson, the special agent in charge of US immigration and customs enforcement, said Greenoe "has potentially put the safety of countless law-abiding British citizens at risk".

The guns are known to have been used in a fatal shooting and gangland drive-by shootings. A large proportion remain in circulation.

The investigation had begun early in 2010 when police on Merseyside recovered a number of new handguns and traced them to North Carolina. Greenoe, who was married to a British woman at the time, was detained on 25 July that year at Raleigh-Durham airport as he checked four bags onto a flight to Manchester via Atlanta.

Officials found 16 pistols in the luggage, broken down into barrels, slides and receivers, along with 32 magazine clips. They also found a letter stating that Greenoe was shipping "inert, non-working" firearm samples. In fact, they were functioning weapons.

Police described Greenoe, who claimed to have previously worked as a bodyguard for Madonna, as a Walter Mitty character. His former wife, Elizabeth, said she saw Facebook photographs of her then husband in the company of stars including George Clooney, Matt Damon and Madonna.

Of the 81 firearms purchased in US gun shops by Greenoe, at least 63 were smuggled to the UK. Only 10 have been recovered.

The Times reported on Wednesday that a Skype conversation between Greenoe and Cardwell in January was filed with the court in Greenville, North Carolina, where Greenoe was sentenced.

"?1,000 for 1,000 rounds of Magtech ? as we are bringing in lots of nines," Greenoe says, according to the transcript of the conversation from February 2010, adding: "Follow up parts for the P38 we already sold him are on me."

He pleaded guilty last year to exporting firearms from the US without a licence and travelling in foreign commerce to deal in firearms without a licence, but has also portrayed himself as the victim of a smear campaign and claimed he was working for a government agency.

"The Justice Department doesn't know and who trained me won't say, which makes them angry," he wrote in a letter to his uncle that was also filed with the court. "In their anger, they are trying to say my actions were for criminal profit even though no such evidence exists ? it was for duty, what my whole life has been, and it was sadly in vain as I'm disposable now."

Speaking after Cardwell's sentencing, Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Richardson, the head of the north-west regional organised crime unit, promised to protect people who came forward with information, saying: "I won't rest until all those firearms are safely in the hands of the police." He described Cardwell as a "criminal businessman dealing in death and misery".

The US authorities thanked the British police for their help in the investigation.

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