A TELEHANDLER theft gang that stole equipment worth hundreds of thousands of pounds over two years has been jailed for a total of 18 years at Southend crown court.
Essex police and plant investigators TER said the jailing of Paul Hemington Granger and four other associates was a big blow against plant theft. It has led to the recovery of Manitous, Caterpillar and JCB machines that had been stolen then sold back through legitimate channels, using identification numbers copied from machines around the world.
But there were warnings that thieves are becoming increasingly bold in their operations.
It has emerged that a different gang, with known terrorist links, was so determined to get its hands on equipment that it broke into a Lincolnshire police pound to re-steal machines that had been seized by detectives.
The jailing of Mr Granger for five years for conspiracy to steal plant was the culmination two years of investigations by Essex Police Crime Squad, TER and the National Criminal Investigation Service, involving covert surveillance and the unravelling of a complex series of transactions.
According to Crime Squad Detective Chief Superintendent Wilson Kennedy, the process, whereby serial numbers from legitimate machines from as far afield as United Arab Emirates and New Zealand were transferred to telehandlers taken from yards and sites around the UK, was sophisticated.
He said: 'The standard of the ringing operation was very skilled and TER's examiners were essential in the identifying some of the true vehicles.TER's assistance was invaluable.'
Tim Purbrick, spokesman for TER, said: 'We started the investigation after a customer in Scotland was doing due diligence on some purchases.
'We discovered that the serial numbers were from machines in France and New Zealand and that the actual machines had been stolen from Hemel Hempstead and Canary Wharf.'
They discovered that the machines were being sold back legitimately to respected firms.
'They had been completely re-stamped and reidentified down to the axle numbers.The fact that the numbers had been taken from a range of manufacturers suggests that the thieves were getting goodquality information from somewhere.'
But Mr Purbrick warned that the jailing of the five Essex men was only the tip of the iceberg.
'While these men were in custody this year, another 30 telehandlers worth £1.3 million have been reported stolen from sites. The criminals are changing their methods.They are now targeting dealers, because they can take a new machine from the dealer's yard, in preference to a used one from a site.'
The plant thieves, a number of whom are known to have links to organised crime and terrorism, are also getting much bolder in their approach.
A woman was killed in November while trying to stop plant being stolen from her husband's yard, and last month thieves broke into a Lincolnshire police pound, using a breakdown truck, to re-steal machines that had been impounded by police.
Mr Purbrick said: 'These guys will stop at nothing, and they won't go away. It needs to be dealt with by the industry as a whole, from insurers to police to users of the kit.'