Britain’s most prolific church lead theft gang have been jailed for 20 years after they left the Church of England with a £1m repair bill across three counties.
The gang, based in Lincoln, struck at 20 churches across the East Midlands only being caught after police stopped a vehicle laden-with stolen lead on the A46 near Lincoln.
Churches hit in the Melton area included St James the Greater at Little Dalby, All Saints’ in Asfordby, and St James in Ab Kettleby.
An investigation led to the arrests of six of the gang after they were linked to the offences through sales of stolen metal to recycling yards. Some of the metal had traces of ‘Smartwater’ which allowed officers to identify where the lead had been stolen.
DNA evidence left behind on a cigarette butt and a beer can at one church and evidence from automatic number plate recognition cameras also led to some of the gang being identified.
The gang, all from Lithuania, netted almost £70,000 from selling the stolen lead during a nine month period in 2011.
But prosecutor Stephen Lowne told Lincoln Crown Court: “The value of the lead was but a small proportion of the cost inflicted upon the churches concerned.
“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 rainwater in. Extensive infrastructure damage was caused to some of the churches.”
He told the court that 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 only one claim per year.
Andrius Cereska (30), Audrius Kvedavas (30), and Tadas Andruska (36) admitted conspiring to steal lead belonging to the the Church of England and were each jailed for four years. Vidas Andruska (34) of Lincoln was found guilty of the same charge after a trial and was jailed for seven years.
Vitalijus Vilkys (27) admitted handling stolen lead and was sentenced to six months imprisonment suspended for two years and 180 hours community punishment.
Nerijus Razma (23) 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 was in the region of £1m and it should not be underestimated the distress felt by Christians at the desescration of their sacred places of divine worship.
“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 was St James the Greater Church in Little Dalby where retired vicar Canon Michael Covington called for more co-ordinated action after an estimated £50,000 worth of lead was removed from Grade II listed church. All Saints’ Church in Asfordby also had to launch a roof appeal.
Det Insp Keith Blakey of Lincolnshire Police said: “The convictions and jail terms represented the biggest success in the fight against heritage crime in Britain to date.
“Since the arrests of these men there has been a massive drop in the number of church lead theft cases in this area.”