Six men have been sentenced for their part in lead thefts from more than 20 churches over three counties.
Andrius Cereska, Tadas Andruska, Audrius Kvedaras, Vidas Andruska, Nerijus Razma and Vitalijus Vilkys are said to have caused up to £1 million worth of damage when they targeted churches including 14 in Lincolnshire and others in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.
Lincoln Crown Court was told that they took part in a complex operation in which they ripped lead from the roofs during night time raids and sold the material on at scrap yards.
A spokesman for Lincolnshire Police said the convictions represented ‘the biggest success in the fight against heritage crime to date’.
The sentences were: Vidas Andruska was given seven years imprisonment after he was found guilty by a jury of conspiracy to steal, Andrius Cereska, Tadas Andrusk and Audrius Kvedaras were each given four years imprisonment after they pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal, Nerijus Razma was given 22 months imprisonment after he was found not guilty of conspiracy to steal but he pleaded guilty to theft and Vitalijus Vilkys was given six months imprisonment suspended for two years with 180 hours of unpaid work after he pleaded guilty to handling stolen goods.
It is estimated that they stole 70 tonnes of lead, which was sold for £70,000, but the damage caused far outstripped that amount.
Speaking after the convictions, DI Keith Blakey, of Lincolnshire Police, said: “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.
“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.”
The churches hit by the group were:
St Nicholas, Fulbeck, Lincolnshire
All Saints, Holton-cum-Beckering, Lincolnshire
St Peter and St Lawrence, Wickenby, Lincolnshire
St Botolph’s, Newton, Lincolnshire
St Mary’s and All Saints, Swarby, Lincolnshire
St Nicholas, Walcot, Lincolnshire (two incidents)
St Mary’s, Sutterton, Lincolnshire
St Peter and St Paul, Algakirk, Lincolnshire
St James, Ab Kettleby, Leicestershire
All Saints, Asfordby, Leicestershire
St Nicholas, Lutton, Lincolnshire
St Peter and St Paul, Gosberton, Lincolnshire
St Margaret’s, Quadring, Lincolnshire
St Mary and All Saints, Kirkby Underwood, Lincolnshire
St Laurence, Norwell, Nottinghamshire
St Andrew’s, Asgarby, Nottinghamshire
St Leodegar’s, Wyberton, Lincolnshire
St Peter’s, Thorpe St Peter, Lincolnshire
St James, Little Dalby, Leicestershire
All Saints, Hougham, Lincolnshire