Lead theft gang ‘labourers’ jailed for targeting churches and factories

Burnley Crown Court.
Burnley Crown Court.
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TWO gang members have been locked up for their part in a plot to steal lead from churches and other buildings in Pendle, the Ribble Valley and beyond.

Lee Hartley and David Raw had been recruited as gang “labourers” to strip lead from roofs in the middle of the night. More than a dozen premises were hit in a four-month spree, leaving a trail of devastation, Burnley Crown Court heard.

Some properties were targeted twice, including a village church, which left its congregation upset, its vicar suffering sleepless nights and victims unable to pay for repairs.

The hearing was told how “foot soldier” Hartley was involved in theft once at that premises, St Andrew’s Church, Gargrave, where a witness heard noises from the church bell, and also at St Mary’s Church, Nelson. Both times he told police he was helping with building work despite the fact it was the early hours and dark. He had been bailed twice and struck again each time.

Both he and his accomplice were found on the roof of Trutex Mill, Clitheroe, in the small hours of last September 24th. The police helicopter was scrambled, the pair were helped down, but the man, said to be the gang leader, and who will be sentenced later, plunged through a skylight.

Hartley (22), of Blucher Street, whose dishonesty cost his victims about £11,000, and Raw (20), of Milton Street, both Colne, admitted conspiracy to steal. Hartley was jailed for 16 months and Raw was sent to detention for eight months.

Mr Mark Monaghan (prosecuting) said the conspiracy involved the taking of lead, tiles and other metals, in particular between July and October last year. Vehicles, mostly vans, were hired from “one side of the Pennines or the other,” and 13 thefts took place.

Mr Monaghan said, last August 4th, tiles were removed from St Mary’s Church. Police, called at 2-30 a.m., found Hartley in a hire van nearby. He pretended to be asleep, but his trousers were caked in damp mud. He claimed to be helping with building work despite the fact it was the small hours of the morning. The church was left with a bill of not less than £2,000 for repairs and replacement.

The defendant was bailed and, eight days later, took part in the second raid on St Andrew’s, just after midnight. A witness heard loud crashing noises, including from the church bell, and saw a vehicle being loaded up and driven off. The Rev. Roderick Geddes found a lot of lead had been removed from the roof. Some was recovered, but the cost of repair and replacement would be £4,500. The premises had been attacked three weeks earlier and, on that occasion, suffered £10,000-worth of damage and theft.

Mr Monaghan said the vicar told police the impact of the thefts had been devastating and the financial result was a disaster, as the church had not got the money for repairs. Water had been leaking inside the building and causing damage. Mr Geddes said he suffered sleepless nights from the stress.

A fingerprint from a drainpipe at the church turned out to be Hartley’s. He was interviewed and again claimed he was doing building work and was unaware of any conspiracy. He was bailed a second time.

The prosecutor said, on September 24th, both defendants were on the roof of the Trutex Mill, hiding in a gulley. Lead had been removed and stacked up nearby and it seemed likely it was a return trip to the building.

When Raw was quizzed by police, he claimed he was helping a friend to make some money. Hartley said he had been rolling up the lead for a mate. The cost to the mill owners of the expedition was £4,500. Both defendants had records.

For Hartley, Mr David Burgess said he was “hired help,” and had been in awe of the prime mover in the operation.

The defendant had a “rather unappealing record” and carried out the offences as he had been struggling financially. His stepfather now intended to give him a small inheritance “in advance of any demise” and the defendant hoped to set up a business.

Mr Burgess added: “Suddenly, from a rather wayward young man, we might be looking at somebody who is about to turn his life around in a rather dramatic way.”