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How a cigarette butt unravelled a Romanian church lead theft syndicate

Operation Dastardly uncovers prolific church lead thieves



Operation Dastardly, an investigation into lead thefts from churches across Lincolnshire and the UK, recently saw the conclusion of the case against the final defendant, Madalin Prundaru, at Lincoln Crown Court. He was handed a 24-month community order.


In August 2016, three Romanians, Gigi Prundaru, aged 34, Laurentiu Rebeca, aged 27, and Madalin Prundaru, aged 26, were arrested in Lincolnshire after they fled the scene of a theft in progress at St Botolphs Church in Walcot near Sleaford. The group was linked to offences across Northamptonshire, Thames Valley, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Bedfordshire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire between April and November 2016.


The three were arrested in Lincolnshire in the early hours of 26 August, 2016, after they left the scene of a theft in progress at St Botolphs Church in Walcot near Sleaford. They were seen leaving the area by the then church warden who bravely followed the vehicle in his car up to the A1 at Grantham, providing Lincolnshire Police 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.


One of the key pieces of evidence linking Madalin Prundaru to the thefts was a discarded cigarette butt found in the grounds of St Andrew's Church in Kingham, Oxfordshire. DNA testing matched the cigarette butt to him. Gigi Prundaru's mobile phone records also showed reconnaissance on the church, including a route plan from London to Kingham the day before the theft was discovered.


The three defendants were involved in numerous thefts, often resulting in significant damage and repair costs. For example, St Mary's Church in Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire, faced repair costs in excess of £125,000 after lead theft. The group's modus operandi often involved fleeing the scene when disturbed, leaving behind evidence such as lead sheets.


After being charged with two offences in Norfolk, Gigi Prundaru and Rebeca fled overseas. However, both were later charged and remanded in custody, only to be released on bail by the court. When a tagging company arrived to fit the tags, the two had already fled the UK. Evidence obtained pointed to Gigi Prundaru being the organiser of the offences and main part of the group, with Laurentiu Rebeca being linked to offences throughout the series.


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.


In March 2023, Madalin Prundaru claimed in his trial 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 on the claim that he was of limited intelligence and did not realise his actions were dishonest.


Following a four-day trial and after 4 and a quarter hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty of all 18 offences he had been charged with.


Investigating officer DC Andrew Woodcock of Lincolnshire Police said: “It is quite difficult to explain how complex this investigation was but even the number of counties and locations involved will probably give some idea. Lincolnshire Police led this investigation but were assisted by colleagues in other police forces and law enforcement agencies, not to mention those who had been affected by these offences, and I’m grateful to all involved for their help and input."


Source: mylocal.co.uk

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