A prolific gang of Romanian men stripped the lead from dozens of rural churches across England causing utter devastation to village communities, a court was told on Wednesday.
The four men targeted churches from Somerset to North Yorkshire during a two-year crime spree which left churches facing repair bills totalling more than £2 million.
The counties hardest hit by the crime spree were Lincolnshire, Somerset, Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire.
Thefts also occurred from churches in Wiltshire, Suffolk, Leicestershire and Derbyshire.
The gang, who all lived in the West Midlands, were arrested in March 2020 after police set up a special unit to investigate the large number of church lead theft cases.
Michael Cranmer-Brown, prosecuting, said: “These defendants played a hugely significant part in an organised crime group whose target was lead sheeting which can be found on the roofs of churches around the country.
“The defendants travelled the length and breadth of the country to churches set in small rural locations arriving there in the early hours of the morning, climbing on to the roof and removing large amounts of lead under cover of darkness. There are other defendants still being sought by the police.
“The churches attacked were located in Lincolnshire, Humberside, Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire, Wiltshire and Avon & Somerset. Lincolnshire as a county was particularly hard hit.
“The attacked buildings were of huge religious and historic significance to the local community and to the country generally.”
The damage to one church, the 14th Century St Bartholomew’s at Covenham St Bartholomew, was valued at £250,000 and the other targeted churches all suffered significant damage with the loss of the lead causing water ingress which damaged the inside of the buildings.
Other churches in Lincolnshire that were targeted included St Nicholas at Normanton, St Lawrence at Tallington, St Mary & St Nicholas at Wrangle, St Andrew’s at Billingborough and St Swithin’s at Baumber.
The damage caused to St Nicholas Church was estimated to be between £150,000 and £200,000.
There was also damage to headstones in the graveyard caused by the lead being thrown to the ground. The court was told that the church had no access to insurance.
An estimated £140,000 damage was caused to the church at Wrangle and £30,000 worth of damage was caused St Lawrence’s at Tallington
The damage to St Swithin’s at Baumber and St Andrew’s Church in the village of Billingborough was also significant.
The Billingborough church minister the Rev Neil Knox described the community as being in “profound shock” at what happened with lunches for the elderly, coffee mornings and village social events all affected.
Mr Cranmer-Brown said that loss of lead damaged not only the church buildings but caused serious problems to the local communities.
“These buildings not only provided a focal point for Church of England services but they provided a hub for the wider community to hold events, functions for charity, coffee mornings and performances of music.
“They also provide a venue for the most important events in the lives of the population such as weddings, baptisms and funerals. They are the epicentre of the local community.
“Each defendant has played his part in causing huge amounts of damage to these churches. The total damage and loss to the churches was in excess of £2 million.”
Mr Cranmer-Brown said that the churches were targeted after the defendants trawled the internet for potential targets.
They often used hire vehicles many of which had tracking devices which provided evidence for the police as to exactly where they had been.
The lead was rolled up from the roof and thrown onto the ground sometimes damaging gravestones in the churchyard. The gang sold it within hours to a recycling business in Birmingham, receiving thousands of pounds in payments made directly into their bank accounts, although the money was only a fraction of the amount of loss caused to the churches.
The individual churches were each left to foot the repair bills themselves as many could only obtain insurance cover for damage up to £7,500 and others were unable to obtain any insurance.
Constantin Motescu, 32, of Stebbings, Sutton Hill, Telford, admitted 23 charges of theft. Paul Buica, 25, of George Street, Birmingham, admitted 16 thefts.
Mihai Birtu, 24, of Port Street, Evesham, admitted 14 thefts. Laurentiu Sucea, 38, of George Street, Birmingham, admitted 13 thefts. The offences occurred between May 2018 and March 2020.
Motescu and Sucea were each jailed for six and a half years. Buica was jailed for six years. Birtu was jailed for 43 months.
A hearing to confiscate the available assets of the defendants was adjourned to a later date.
Judge Catarina Sjolin Knight said: “This was an organised, sophisticated and persistent operation which targeted country churches across England for their lead. Each theft required significant planning and team work both to conduct the theft.
“The harm was high because of the heavy consequential financial losses occasioned by the thefts, the impact on the local and wider community and the damage to heritage assets.”
The crime wave resulted in Lincolnshire Police setting up a specialist unit to track down the offenders and at the end of the hearing Judge Sjolin Knight commended the team that carried out the work.
Police said the incidents cost 36 churches a combined total of almost £2.1 million.
Detective Chief Inspector Jon Shield, leading the investigation, said: “Working in partnership with other forces and agencies including the Diocese of Lincoln and Historic England, our dedicated Op History team have worked tirelessly to ensure justice is served.
“Some of the church congregations are still struggling to find the funds to repair the damage and restore their significant historical buildings which means so much to them as well as the local communities they serve.
“The vast majority of these churches will have had insurance in place, but the insurance only covers a small part of the costs so congregations have been left to foot the remainder of the bill.
“The impact of these offences goes well beyond the significant financial cost. Communities have felt a great sense of loss at the damage caused to their heritage, and increased vulnerability due to the rural nature of many of the premises.
“It is still unclear what these defendants spent the money they gained from these thefts on and investigations into this is still ongoing.
“Some of the buildings are thousands of years old so these men have potentially destroyed hundreds of years of our heritage.”