Five men have been jailed for their part in the theft of lead from 20 churches across Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire – causing up to £1m damage.
The men were part of a gang of six Lithuanian nationals sentenced at Lincoln Crown Court on Thursday.
One of the churches targeted by the gang was St Mary and All Saints in Church Lane, Kirkby Underwood.
On July 5, 2011 the thieves caused £20,000 damage by stripping 36sqm of lead from the building’s roof in a night time raid.
Andrius Cereska, 30, of Laceby Street, Lincoln; Audrius Kvedavas, 30, of Maple Street, Lincoln, and Tadas Andruska, 36, of Roman Pavement, Lincoln, all admitted conspiring to steal lead belonging to the Church of England between January and September 2011 and were each jailed for four years.
Vidas Andruska, 34, of Roman Pavement, Lincoln, was found guilty of the same charge after a trial and was jailed for seven years.
Vitalijus Vilkys, 27, of Nelson Street, 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 Manby Street, 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 £1m.
“It is a great deal of money, it is very important and should not be underestimated the distress felt by Christians at the desescration of their scared 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.
“This was a case of professionally planned group offending for considerable financial gain with a very significant impact on the local community. The sentences are meant to both punish and deter.”
It is estimated the gang stole 70 tonnes of lead, which they sold for £70,000, but the damage they caused to the churches was more than ten times that amount.
Police believe they were also responsible for a number of other raids and were the main reason for the high number of Church thefts in Lincolnshire during 2011 when 186 religious buildings were hit making it the second most affected county.
Raids have dropped 90 per cent since their arrest with just 19 churches the subject of lead theft so far in 2012.
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 metal and DNA from a cigarette butt left on one of the church roofs.
DI Keith Blakey said: “The convictions and jail terms represented the biggest success in the fight against heritage crime in Britain to date.
“This is a fantastic result for the people of Lincolnshire and it demonstrates the effectiveness of Lincolnshire Police’s 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 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.”
“We hope today’s 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.