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By Gary Smee Thursday 20 December 2012 Updated: 03/01 13:27
EIGHT Romanian men who stole thousands of metres of railway cable causing months of misery for Vale commuters have all been jailed.
The gang targeted rural stretches of the Cotswold Line between Evesham and Moreton-in-Marsh causing around half a million pounds worth of damage after stealing 6,000 metres of cable.
The men, all from the Handsworth and Smethwick areas of Birmingham struck at least 22 times between the start of November 2011 and the end of May this year, always waiting until it was dark to carry out their crimes.
Network Rail said it cost them between £450,000 and £500,000 to replace and repair the cables and also to pay fines incurred to train operators as a result of the delays and disruption caused.
Some of the gang also targeted the railway line in Church Lawford, Warwickshire, following increased police patrols in Evesham and the Cotswolds.
Jan Trofin, 36, Alexandru Tofaleanu, 29, Mihai Mihart, 26, Stefanel Ruset, 19, Christian Toader, 24, Mihai Binta, 27, Florin Cojocaru, 19, and Costinel Mijloc, 24, were sentenced to a total of 23 years at Birmingham Crown Court on Tuesday and Wednesday (December 18 and 19) after they all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal railway cable from the railway network.
Trofin, Mihart and Binta were also recommended for deportation on the completion of their sentences.
British Transport Police (BTP) officers were first alerted to the problem on November 3, 2011 after a loss of power to signalling in the Chipping Campden area. Police then discovered a quantity of cable had been cut and stored by the thieves awaiting collection.
A number of other incidents along the Cotswold Line were then reported in the following days and weeks prompting a major investigation by BTP officers who began patrolling the line overnight and employing covert cameras and alarms to track the thieves' movements.
On February 5, officers encountered two men on the railway line at Blockley Crossing, near Paxford in the Cotswolds. The men fled through fields and into dense wooded area with officers chasing on foot. A police dog handler was called to the scene and with the support of a police helicopter, the men were found hiding in the woodland.
Officers arrested two men - Ruset and Marius Stana. The latter is believed to have fled to his native Romania while on bail and is currently wanted by police in connection with the conspiracy.
On May 24 this year after gathering a wealth of evidence and intelligence over the previous six months, BTP officers raided five addresses in Handsworth and Smethwick. A total of 11 men were arrested – the eight defendants along with three other men who were later released without charge.
Prosecutor, Michael Duck, told the court it was clear there was a hierarchy among the gang. Trofin, Mihart and Tofaleanu were regarded as the key players, while Binta, Cojocaru and Mijloc described as willing foot soldiers who played lesser roles in the conspiracy, such as driving vehicles or fetching and carrying stolen cable.
Judge Robert Orme said there had been a level of sophistication attached to the thefts and each had a major impact on the rail network and passengers whose trains were delayed or cancelled as a result of the criminal activity.
"These are clearly very serious offences of theft involving sustained, professional offending which require, in my view, a deterrent element in the sentencing," he added.
Detective Inspector Andy Irwin-Porter, who led the BTP investigation, said the sentences showed it was not worth considering stealing cable from the rail network.
"Our officers will find you and do everything in our power to bring you to justice – just as we have seen in this hugely complex and demanding case," he said.
"Eight men are now facing 23 years in jail between them, despite only receiving very little financial gain from the thefts they carried out."
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