Canon Shamus Williams retired last August after 27 years looking after five South Cambridgeshire parishes without knowing, until now, the fate of culprits who had stolen the lead of one of his churches six years earlier.
The thieves who stole the lead of St Peter and St Paul in Steeple Morden – which Canon Williams described at the time as “feeling like an attack on the whole community” – have finally been brought to justice.
Those men principally responsible were actually arrested a few months after another theft in Lincolnshire but two fled the country before they could face trial.
“A thorough and complex investigation then followed,” says Lincolnshire Police. “It resulted in the group being charged with a total of 47 offences in 10 counties.
“The value of the aggregate damage caused to the churches was £1.25m.”
In total the group were charged with 100 thefts/attempted thefts from 40 different churches, and, of these, 73 offences resulted in conviction.
The other offences were allowed by the court to be laid on file.
Canon Williams said at the time of the theft that “those who commit such crimes should realise they are damaging not simply the building, but community life too.
“It will be very costly and difficult for this small community to repair the damage done, but we go forward trusting in God’s love.”
Gigi Prundaru, aged 34, Laurentiu Rebeca, aged 27, and Madalin Prundaru, aged 26, were arrested in Lincolnshire in the early hours of 26 August 2016, after they left the scene of a theft in progress at St Botolph’s Church in Walcot near Sleaford, Lincolnshire.
The group were seen leaving the area by the then church warden who followed the vehicle in his car up to the A1 at Grantham, providing Lincolnshire Police’s force control room with updates along the way, helping officers track them.
Officers located the suspects’ car, and the defendants were found packed into the front seat of the car with the rear full of lead sheets. They were arrested and the lead was tested.
SMARTWATER test conclusive
There had been a number of thefts of lead from churches in the previous few days in the Sleaford area. A sample of lead was matched via SMARTWATER samples to another theft at nearby Newton church which had occurred that night.
The group was linked to offences identified in Northamptonshire (11 offences); Thames Valley (8 offences); Norfolk (6 offences) Lincolnshire (5 offences); Leicestershire (5 offences); Cambridgeshire (5 offences); Suffolk (3 offences); Bedfordshire (2 offences) Wiltshire (1 offence) and Hampshire (1 offence).
The offences took place between 22 April 2016, and 11 November 2016.
Gigi Prundaru and Rebeca continued to commit numerous offences following their arrest in Lincolnshire.
They were charged with two offences in Norfolk but fled overseas.
Offences in Cambridgeshire committed between 10 June 2016 and 5 July 2016 included theft of lead from St Mary’s Potton, church, St Bartholomew’s church, Great Gransden, Cambridgeshire, and St Peter and St Pauls Church in Steeple Morden.
DNA on cigarette butt
Mobile phone data and scrap yard payments along with DNA on a cigarette butt linked the group to these offences.
Madalin Gabriel Prundaru, from Redbridge Lane East, Ilford, was found guilty of 18 lead theft charges at Lincoln Crown Court after a jury returned a guilty verdict last month.
He appeared at Lincoln Crown Court on Friday, where the judge gave him a 24-month community order.
The other two – in an operation was called Operation Dastardly and led by Lincolnshire Police – had previously been jailed.
Gigi Prundaru previously admitted 31 offences and was sentenced to a total of 6 years 1 month imprisonment. Laurentiu Rebeca admitted 24 offences and was sentenced to 4 years 10 months imprisonment.
Investigating officer DC Andrew Woodcock, of Lincolnshire Police, said: “The courage of the church warden and his wife in this case gave us a huge head start because his on-the-ground information and intelligence meant we knew exactly where the suspects were.
“Without that, it would have taken us longer to track and find them. I extend my thanks to them for their clear mindedness and bravery – not everyone would have been able to do what they did.
Public ‘our eyes and ears’
“At times we rely on the public to help be our eyes and ears in our communities because we can’t be everywhere all of the time, and this is a shining example of how the public can help us to do our jobs more effectively.”
Subsequent enquiries revealed the defendants, who were living in the Edmonton area of London, would commit offences in the early hours and then travel back to London and weigh in the lead sheets at a London scrap yard.
“They received around £70,000 during the seven-month period.
The group were also linked to another investigation, led by Cambridgeshire, in which a defendant, Petre Cazan, received seven and half years’ imprisonment in March 2019. Cazan and Gigi Prundaru were known from mobile phone evidence to have committed several offences together.
An international enquiry was conducted in relation to Gigi Prundaru and Rebeca’s whereabouts and following issuing of the European Arrest Warrants, through detective work, Rebeca was located in Austria and Gigi Prundaru in Romania.
They were both arrested in November 2019 on European Arrest Warrants and extradited back to the UK.
The defendants initially contested the offences but overwhelming evidence from a combination of mobile phone cell site evidence and mobile phone downloads, ANPR evidence, and forensic evidence and records of payments to the scrap yard, led to them changing their pleas to guilty.
Bravery of churchwarden
The judge also awarded £350 of public money to be issued to the church warden for his bravery.
The conclusion of the case was delayed initially due to the European Arrest Warrant process and then latterly delays awaiting trial due to the COVID-19 pandemic, associated backlog of cases arising from the pandemic, and barrister strikes.
Reporting restrictions were put in place which meant no details could be released until the last defendant, Prandaru, appeared at court for trial.
Dc Andrew Woodcock said: “This was a painstaking enquiry into large scale organised criminality.
“Offences were identified through detailed investigation, piecing together mobile phone communications data, and ANPR evidence of vehicles linked to the defendants.
“It was identified that the defendants would travel back to London and weigh the lead in for a fraction of its true value. Nevertheless, they benefitted to around £70,000 from the offences but caused significant distress to the local communities of the churches they targeted.
“Some of these churches, four years later, are still completing repairs.”
At his trial in March 2023 Madalin Prundaru alleged that he had been recruited by his cousin to do building work at unknown locations across the UK during the night.
He said he had no knowledge that it was theft but admitted in evidence that he would have stolen if Gigi Prundaru told him. He alleged that he had been exploited by his cousin and only paid around £25-£30 a time.
His defence rested that he was of limited intelligence and did not realise his actions were dishonest.
Following a four-day trial and after 4 and quarter hours of deliberation the jury found him guilty of all 18 offences he had been charged with.
Extent of damage caused
Examples of the damage to some of the churches was heard by the courts.
The quoted cost of repairs for the Middleton Cheney lead theft was in excess of £125,000.
St Andrew’s Church, Witham on the Hill, Stamford, had lead stolen which caused £150,000 worth of damage/
Historic England chief executive Duncan Wilson said: “The outcome of this case highlights the benefits of collaborative working between the Police, Crown Prosecution Service, church communities and Historic England, and is an approach we shall continue to use when dealing with metal theft.
“The theft of metal from historic church buildings is a serious and organised crime.
Lincolnshire Police and Crime Commissioner Marc Jones said: “This is nationally significant tremendous work by Lincolnshire Police and the crown prosecution service and sends a very clear message to thieves who target our much-loved heritage sites.
“Never have our churches and our heritage been under such attack since the Vikings and those who mistakenly believed they would be easy pickings have been held to account. To those who might look to carry out similar crimes in the future the message is clear – the police will pursue you until you are caught, and justice is done.”
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