Church lead theft conspirators sentenced

13/12/2012

Four people have been sentenced at Lincoln Crown Court for their part in a widespread conspiracy to steal lead from 20 churches across Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, a conspiracy described by CPS East Midlands Senior Crown Prosecutor Simon Rowe as the biggest of its kind ever prosecuted. Two others were sentenced for theft and handling stolen goods for related offences.

Andrius Cereska, Tadas Andruska, Audrius Kvedaras and Vidas Andruska ran an operation targeting churches and ripping lead from their roofs during night time raids, which they sold on at metal recycling yards. They were convicted of conspiracy to steal. Some admitted their offences and pleaded guilty, others were convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty during trial. Nerijus Razma and Vitalijus Vilkys were arrested following one of the thefts, but were not proven to have been part of the conspiracy. They have been convicted of theft and handling stolen goods for related offences.

It is estimated that the gang stole 70 tonnes of lead, which they sold for £70,000, but the damage they caused to the churches was more than five times that amount.

The group were snared when Lincolnshire police stopped two suspicious vehicles on the A46 on August 25. Five of the six defendants were present, along with a quantity of stolen lead. All were arrested on suspicion of theft.

The following month, while on bail, two of the offenders were caught and arrested again while trying to weigh in more stolen lead at a local scrap yard.

'Smart water' on the lead in the car identified it as from a county church. The rest of the gang were identified through mobile phone records, scrap metal records, scientific evidence, including smart water from the metals and DNA from a cigarette butt left on one of the church roofs.

In many cases the lead is irreplaceable; modern roofing materials are not as effective and are out of keeping, and insurance rarely covers the full cost, which is not always possible to meet.

Simon Rowe, said: "This is the biggest case of metal theft from churches or heritage sites the CPS has ever prosecuted, and a real landmark in the fight against heritage crime.

"Criminals may think that because churches are not homes or businesses then stealing from them somehow does not leave a victim behind. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are places of cultural, historic, religious and, to many people, personal importance, cared for over centuries by dedicated members of their community.

"Despite this, this group targeted these churches, using blunt force to rip the lead from the roofs and throwing it to the ground, damaging the fabric of ancient buildings, monuments and gravestones and exposing the interiors to the elements.

"The CPS takes these crimes particularly seriously because thefts of this nature leave small communities devastated that their historic church has been desecrated. 

"These individuals have shown a callous disregard for the communities they stole from and the damage they have done." 

Detective Inspector Keith Blakey of Lincolnshire Police said: "This is a fantastic result for the people of Lincolnshire and it demonstrates the effectiveness of Lincolnshire Polices Operation Brompton, which was launched to tackle metal theft in the county.

"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 amongst congregations.

"We hope todays outcome sends a clear message to criminals across the East Midlands and the rest of the country. If you attempt to operate in Lincolnshire, you will be arrested and put before the courts.

Anthony Streeten, English Heritage Planning and Conservation Director for the East Midlands, said:
"Lincolnshire has the highest number of Grade I listed churches in the country: of the 631 church buildings in the Diocese of Lincoln, 256 are listed at Grade I. This great legacy of medieval churches is looked after by a small band of dedicated people, mostly on very limited incomes. Thefts from these buildings are both damaging to our heritage and demoralising for local communities. English Heritage takes crimes against heritage very seriously. We are very grateful to Lincolnshire Police and the Crown Prosecution Service in this case. English Heritage is committed to working with everyone concerned to take effective enforcement action against criminals who cause harm to the nations historic places".