Lithuanian gang which stole lead from church roofs and left a 1m repair bill are jailed for total of 20 years
Lincoln-based gang hit 20 churches over three counties in nine monthsThey made almost 70,000 from selling stolen lead but six were arrestedLincolnshire was badly-hit last year but raids have fallen 90% since arrests
19:35 GMT, 13 December 2012
Britain's most prolific church lead theft gang were today jailed for a total of more than two decades after they left the Church of England with a 1million repair bill at 20 churches across three counties.
The gang from Lithuania, who were based in the cathedral city of Lincoln, struck across the East Midlands and were only caught when police stopped a vehicle laden with stolen lead on the A46.
They made almost 70,000 from selling stolen lead over nine months in 2011, but six of the gang were arrested after being linked to the offences through sales of stolen metal to recycling yards.
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Lithuanian gang: Andrius Cereska (left), Audrius Kvedaras (centre) and Tadas Andruska (right) struck across the East Midlands and were only caught when police stopped a vehicle laden-with stolen lead on the A46
Involved: The gang, which included Nerijus Razma (left) and Vidas Andruska (right), made almost 70,000 from selling stolen lead over nine months in 2011, but six were eventually arrested. Vitalijus Vilkys is not pictured
Some of the metal had traces of ‘smart
water’ which allowed officers to identify from where the lead had been
stolen – and police believe they were also responsible for a number of
DNA evidence left behind on a cigarette butt and a beer can at one church, along with evidence from automatic number plate recognition cameras, also led to some of the gang being identified.
Investigators believe the gang were the main reason for the high number of church thefts last year in Lincolnshire, when 186 religious buildings were hit – making it the second most affected county.
Raids have fallen 90 per cent since their arrests, with just 19 churches suffering lead theft in 2012.
Between 2007 and 2011 over 14,000 cases of church lead theft were reported across the country, costing the Church 32million. That compared with just 20 thefts a year between 2000 and 2004.
Repair job: One of the churches targeted by the Lithuanian gang in Lincolnshire was St Nicholas in Fulbeck
Damaged: St Laurence in Norwell was one of the two churches in Nottinghamshire that was targeted
Although most of the churches targeted by the gang were in Lincolnshire, others in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire were also raided, Stephen Lowne, prosecuting, told Lincoln Crown Court.
'The value of the lead was but a small proportion of the cost inflicted upon the churches concerned'
Stephen Lowne, prosecuting
‘The value of the lead was but a small proportion of the cost inflicted upon the churches concerned,’ he said. ‘These churches were fairly isolated and some of them did not have houses nearby.
'In some cases it was some time before the thefts were discovered, allowing the ingress of rainwater. Extensive infrastructure damage was caused to some of the churches.’
The crime became so prevalent that the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which provides insurance to Church of England churches, restricted claims to 5,000 per church – allowing one claim per year.
Problematic: Among the buildings hit in August last year was the St James the Greater Church in Little Dalby, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
Andrius Cereska, 30, Audrius Kvedavas, 30, and Tadas Andruska, 36, all of Lincoln, all admitted conspiring to steal lead belonging to the Church of England between January and September 2011.
Theft: Fifteen of the targeted churches were in Lincolnshire, including St Margaret's in Quadring
The trio were each jailed for four years. Meanwhile, Vidas Andruska, 34, also of Lincoln, was found guilty of the same charge after a trial and was jailed for seven years.
Vitalijus Vilkys, 27, also of Lincoln, admitted handling stolen lead and was sentenced to six months imprisonment suspended for two years and 180 hours community punishment.
Nerijus Razma, 23, of Lincoln, pleaded guilty to a single theft charge and was jailed for 22 months.
Passing sentence, Judge Michael Heath told the gang: ‘These thefts caused serious financial consequences. The overall costs to the 20 churches, I am told, is in the region of 1million.
‘It is a great deal of money. It is very important and the distress felt by Christians at the desecration of their scared places of divine worship should not be underestimated.
‘You lot could not care less about those feelings. All you were interested in was stealing lead, weighing it in, and making money.’
Among the buildings hit in August last year was the St James the Greater Church in Little Dalby, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.
Retired vicar Canon Michael Covington
called for more co-ordinated action after an estimated 50,000-worth of
lead was removed from the Grade II-listed church.
Tarpaulin: St Nicholas in Lutton was another of the 15 churches targeted by the gang in Lincolnshire
'The convictions and jail terms represented the biggest success in the fight against heritage crime in Britain to date'
DI Keith Blakey, Lincolnshire Police
Two other village churches in Leicestershire, St James in Ab Kettleby, and All Saints in Asfordby, were struck, along with two in Nottinghamshire – St Andrew's in Asgarby, and St Laurence in Norwell.
The 15 other churches hit were in Lincolnshire.
Reverend Gary Morgan, from St Peter and St Paul's church in the Lincolnshire village of Algarkirk, said there had been two previous lead thefts at his church, which he admitted was ‘very dispiriting.’
Rebuild effort: St Peter's in Thorpe St Peter, Lincolnshire, was also targeted by the thieves who made a fortune
The churches in Lincolnshire were St Nicholas in Fulbeck, All Saints in Holton-cum-Beckering, St Peter and St Laurence in Wickenby, St Botolph in Newton, St Mary's and All Saints in Swarby, St Nicholas in Walcot, St Mary's in Sutterton, St Peter and St Paul in Algarkirk, St Peter & St Paul in Gosberton, St Nicholas in Lutton, St Margaret’s in Quadring, St Mary's and All Saints in Kirkby Underwood, St Leodegars in Wyberton, All Saints in Hougham, and St Peter's in Thorpe St Peter.
'Since the arrests of these men there has been a massive drop in the number of church lead theft cases in this area'
DI Keith Blakey, Lincolnshire Police
Detective Inspector Keith Blakey of Lincolnshire Police, who led the probe, said ‘The convictions and jail terms represented the biggest success in the fight against heritage crime in Britain to date.
‘These thieves targeted some of the most important heritage sites in the heart of our rural communities, causing huge amounts of damage to religious buildings and leading to a great deal of upset among congregations. Since the arrests of these men there has been a massive drop in the number of church lead theft cases in this area.’
VIDEO: DI Keith Blakey reacts to the final result from court…
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