A hero churchwarden snared a gang linked to 47 raids in 10 counties by chasing them in his car while giving police the location of their getaway vehicle.
Three Romanians were arrested with their car jam-packed with 12 sheets of lead, stolen from a church roof.
It had been doused in SmartWater – a traceable liquid that is applied to valuable items to enable police to identify stolen property.
Each bottle has a unique forensic identifier which shows up under ultraviolet light.
It meant police officers from Operation Dastardly could link the gang of migrants to dozens of other church roof raids.
Gigi Prundaru, 34, Laurentiu Rebeca, 27, and Madalin Prundaru, 26, caused more than £1.25million in damage before being snared due to the brave warden who spotted them fleeing from St Botolph’s Church in Walcott, near Sleaford, Lincs.
The warden followed their getaway vehicle on to the A1 at Grantham, providing police with updates as officers raced to join the pursuit.
Police also linked DNA from a cigarette butt found in the grounds of St Andrew’s Church in Kingham, Oxfordshire, to Prundaru.
The breakthrough marks the largest prosecution to date involving lead theft from churches since the law was changed in 2012 to recognise the aggravating factor of criminal damage to heritage assets.
The gang of three, who were living in the Edmonton area of North London, would commit offences around the country in the early hours and then travel back and weigh the lead sheets at a local scrap yard.
They received £70,000 during a seven-month crime spree.
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But despite being arrested in August 2016, the men have only now been brought to justice after Prundaru and Rebeca fled overseas.
European Arrest Warrants led to Prundaru being detained in Romania while Rebeca was located in Austria.
Both were arrested and extradited back to the UK.
The police’s investigation was able to tie them to church raids in Northamptonshire, Thames Valley, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Bedfordshire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire between April and November 2016.
At Lincoln Crown Court, Prundaru was jailed for six years, Rebeca was given four years and 10 months, while Prundaru received a two-year community order.
Gary Higgins, of Smartwater provider DeterTech, said: “This case should serve as a reminder to the criminal fraternity that areas ‘Protected by SmartWater’ are no-go zones.”
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