Harlow man sentenced as van theft gang caught

A MAN from North Weald who masterminded the theft of nearly 60 cars and vans worth more than £600,000 has been jailed for two and a half years.

Ricky Steed, who led a five-man gang on a thieving rampage across Essex and east London, was responsible for stealing most of the vehicles which were dismantled and the parts sold online or by cash-in-hand deals.

Many of their victims were tradesmen or market traders who woke up in the morning to find that their vans had been taken from their drives overnight.

Almost-new Ford Fiesta cars, the best-selling vehicle in Britain and the pride and joy of their owners, were also taken and chopped up for spares.

Steed and his gang took a total of 58 vehicles between February and December 2013. Police already had information about the gang but their racket came to an end after they stole a Transit van from an address in Harlow on the night of October 31.

The owner had fitted a tracking device to the van and it was tracked to an industrial unit on a farm at Vicarage Lane, North Weald.

Using the codename Operation Deborah, an investigation team led by Essex detectives DCs Chris Bailey and Matt Wigg and specialist officers from the Essex Police Stolen Vehicle Unit, had been working with officers from the Metropolitan Police to identify the vehicle thieves. It was the crucial break they needed.

Essex and Metropolitan Police officers executed a search warrant at the site and found 23 vehicles in stages ranging from complete to completely dismantled.

Evidence found at the unit included Ricky Steed’s DNA on a McDonald’s straw left on a workbench. Police then found that Steed had rented a nearby unit at the same site. Fingerprints on a van at the site identified Iain Sellers, who was found to be an associate of Steed’s.

Further investigations established that other units at the farm were rented by Lee Morris. Numerous stolen vehicle parts and an intact stolen Ford Fiesta were found at Morris’s unit.

Morris was arrested at the unit but the gang moved to another location and continued to operate. Further warrants were executed at the men’s addresses and all were arrested and charged in April 2014.

Enquiries had led to another gang member George Smithson and vehicle parts were found when his home at Harlow Common, Harlow was searched by police. Smithson was found to have been involving in chopping up vehicles and disposing of the parts.

A fifth gang member Danny Johnson was traced and was found to have been involved in the theft of vehicles.

Steed, 22, from Lindisfarne Road, Dagenham, admitted conspiracy to steal motor vehicles and was sentenced at Basildon Crown Court on Wednesday May 27.

The four other men were all sentenced at Basildon Crown Court last month.

Iain Sellers, 26, of no fixed address, admitted conspiracy and was jailed for two years. Smithson 22, of Harlow admitted handling stolen goods and was given a one year prison sentence suspended for 18 months.

Lee Morris, 37, of Seven Sisters Road, Tottenham, also admitted handling stolen goods and was also given a one year jail sentence, suspended for 18 months.

Danny Johnson, 27, of Coombes Road, Dagenham, admitted theft and was given a 12-month conditional discharge.

DS Paul Tindall of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate’s Serious and Organised Crime Unit, said: “Operation Deborah was set up to counter the theft of Transit vans and Ford Fiestas by an organised crime gang operating in Essex and the neighbouring London boroughs of Havering and Barking and Dagenham. The centre of operations was the farm site at North Weald.

“DCs Matt Wigg and Chris Bailey did a superb job in running this operation and it was a great example of proactive teamwork between officers from Essex and the Metropolitan Police.

“They worked tirelessly to tackle a crime that was affecting car owners and the many tradesmen who went out to work in the morning to find their van, their livelihood, and their tools missing.

“This case was solved mainly because one owner had fitted a tracking device that led us to the gang. It demonstrated just how useful trackers are in bringing criminals to justice.”

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