The break-in is captured, frame by sinister frame, on CCTV: three hoodie-wearing figures enter the back garden of a detached house in an affluent suburb. Moments later, they emerge on an upstairs landing inside the property, their faces now masked, as they hunt for valuables.
It’s early evening and the owners are out, but neighbours believe that, aside from the trio of intruders caught on camera, there were other accomplices in the vicinity, a getaway driver and possibly someone acting as lookout.
Earlier that day, a Toyota Corolla, ‘full of young men,’ was spotted cruising slowly down the cul-de-sac; residents now believe the perpetrators were deciding which property to raid.
CCTV footage released by police showed an organised gang robbing a house in the Littleover suburb of Derby
Such sightings — groups of young men, often in high-powered vehicles — have become frighteningly familiar in the Littleover area of Derby, which in the space of a few weeks last month became one of the most burgled corners of the country. Police put the figure for the number of properties targeted in a handful of streets at more than 30; residents are convinced the number is even higher.
We might not know the identity of the criminals in the CCTV footage released by Derbyshire police this week, but they are part of an alarming new phenomenon known as ‘spree burglaries’.
Four men, wielding a crowbar, sledgehammer and long screwdriver, held children hostage and sprayed fake acid at their ageing grandparents in a raid on a £1.4 million five-bedroom home in Chislehurst, South-East London, on March 5 — one of more than 20 burglaries in the area this year.
The suspects, who were white and stocky with Irish accents, stole money and jewellery after dragging the children, aged 11 and 14, through the house. They escaped in a silver Mercedes.
Separate footage showing a gang stealing a safe in Keston, near Bromley, about five miles away, on February 21, was also released by detectives.
The thieves dragged the safe, filled with watches and jewellery, through the property in Forest Ridge, before loading it into the boot of a BMW.
‘Spree’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a spell or sustained period of unrestrained activity’ which is one way of describing what’s been happening in Derby and South-East London.
Spree burglaries are carried out, not by opportunist crooks acting alone, but marauding gangs who move from town to town, city to city, leaving a trail of frightened communities behind.
‘These are organised criminals,’ said Ranjit Dol, police inspector for Derby West, which covers Littleover. ‘They come here having travelled from all over the country.’
One car linked to the Littleover raids — an Audi with false number plates — was found nearly 70 miles away in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire.
The criminals he’s referring to are not associated with any particular demographic, but some of the gangs recently convicted for ‘spree burglaries’ have come from Eastern Europe and South America. One prolific crew from Lithuania was operating in Derbyshire.
Was a break-in at the Oxfordshire mansion of Judy Martin — widow of ‘Fifth Beatle’ Sir George Martin — part of the same pattern? Lady Martin, 89, it emerged last week, was watching TV when two masked men broke in through the conservatory. She ran upstairs, rang the police and the intruders fled. Nothing was stolen.
Spree break-ins have a number of distinguishing features; the speed, for example, at which gangs work. The masked men on CCTV in Littleover arrived at the house in Burghley Way at 6.04pm and were gone by 6.14pm — ten minutes later. They headed straight to the bedrooms — another defining characteristic — to steal cash and jewellery.
Laptops and iPads, which can be easily traced and have no re-sale value, were left behind.
But the most striking — and shocking — aspect is the sheer brashness of the gangs. A number of break-ins in Littleover took place in daylight; others when the lights were on and people were clearly at home. During one occasion, a front door was removed from a house heavily overlooked by other homes.
Detectives from Bromley Burglary Squad released CCTV footage following an aggravated burglary at a family home
On another, the suspected culprits, who’d been caught on CCTV, returned to the scene that same evening and taunted residents who had gathered outside the burgled property by repeatedly sounding their car horn.
Pretty audacious you might say, but they know there is little chance of ever being caught.
Nationally, just one in ten burglaries is solved. Decline in detection rates, blamed on the axing of more than 17,000 front-line officers in six years, has coincided with an upsurge in domestic burglaries, up 32 per cent to 261,915 for the 12 months to September 2017.
In Derbyshire itself, there were 3,753 burglaries last year — a rise of 37 per cent. So far, no one has been charged with any burglary in Littleover.
At the height of the crimewave residents slept in shifts to watch out for suspicious activity and patrols, on foot and by car, continue. One resident compared living in Littleover to being ‘on the set of The Purge,’ the hit Hollywood movie set in a dystopian America when all crime is made legal for one night a year.
‘We really felt we were under siege, a full-on attack on our community,’ said business manager Lee Rodwell, 37. ‘The police do their best, but they can’t cope. The criminals know it.’
Littleover was not targeted by accident. It is considered one of the most desirable postcodes in Derby. House prices (some in the £1 million region) outstrip the city average. The neighbourhood has good schools (including private Derby High and Derby Grammar) and road links that enable any gang to move quickly around the country.
Littleover also has a high concentration of Indian households, who represent 15 per cent of the population. Asian families traditionally have collections of high quality ‘Indian gold,’ elaborate necklaces, rings, earrings and bangles handed down from generation to generation or bought as wedding gifts. Jewellery worth more than £25,000 was stolen from one such household in the burglary spree.
One of the first roads to be hit was Harpur Avenue, a street lined with picket fences and hanging baskets. Among the victims was chef Belinda Betts. She popped out, just before 9pm, and returned 20 minutes later to a scene of uproar. Her window had been prised open and a burglar alarm was going off a few doors down. ‘They had gone through everything upstairs, drawers, wardrobes, cupboards,’ said Mrs Betts. ‘I think they were probably in the house when I arrived back with my granddaughter because they left through the back door.’
More than £250 and jewellery was stolen. Her home was among four burgled during the time she was out, including two of her neighbours in Harpur Avenue (the front door had been removed from one property) and another address round the corner in Windsor Avenue; all had been ransacked.
‘I spoke to a man outside in the street and he told me some people had just come running out of a property nearby with their faces covered up and got into a flash car,’ Mrs Betts added as she recounted what has become an all-too familiar story in Littleover.
Not long afterwards, retired couple Kip and Annie Wilks were watching TV in the early evening at their home in nearby Horwood Avenue, oblivious to the fact that a gang was upstairs inside their home. The burglars scaled a 6ft gate at the side of the house before clambering onto the roof of an extension at the back and breaking in through the bathroom window. They turned out drawers, rummaged through shoeboxes, and pulled out items from under beds.
‘We had no idea,’ said Mr Wilks, a former engineer in his 70s, ‘until my wife went upstairs and asked me why I had left the bathroom window open. It was a very unnerving experience.’
There was no jewellery or cash in the bedrooms so the gang left empty-handed.
The culprits — ‘two or three of them’ — were spotted by Mr Rodwell, the resident who likened life in Littleover in recent weeks to being on the set of The Purge.
Mr Rodwell lives opposite Kip and Annie Wilks and he and his neighbour, Sukhy Ubhi, who is a manager at a chemicals company, formed a WhatsApp online messaging group for residents to share ‘intelligence’ after the Wilkses were targeted.
There were three other break-ins and attempted break-ins on the street.
This WhatsApp message log is from a typical evening, February 18, when Littleover was, to quote Mr Rodwell, ‘under siege.’
18.46: ‘All quiet.’
18.51: ‘Suspicious slow moving silver BMW with four people in with hoodies looking at the houses.’
18.54: ‘Silver audi with lads in parked, then drove off as I approached.
18.57: Both cars seemed out of place, particularly the BMW.’
19.41: ‘All quiet.’
20.36: Guy wearing cap and hoodie walked slowly down the road looking over walls. Gone into Warwick Ave now.’
20.48: ‘All peaceful.’
21.12: ‘All is quiet.’
21.51: ‘All is well.’
A few days later, a house in nearby Meadowgrass Close, among others, was burgled. The intruders cut through the back door with power tools.
‘It made us all very anxious,’ said Mr Rodwell. ‘We were all constantly on the look-out for cars filled with men in hoodies which were either driving very slowly down the street or just parked up watching.’
Mr Rodwell has resorted to extreme measures himself after someone tried to break into his garage. There is new fencing, lined with razor wire, along the side of his house. The same deterrent has been installed on a flat roof at the back of the detached property.
‘I just want to keep my family safe and realised we could not rely on the police,’ said Mr Rodwell.
A public meeting was organised by local Liberal Democratic councillors and campaign Group ‘Carlisle [Avenue] Against Crime’ in the middle of the onslaught.
Inspector Ranjit Dol, who addressed the gathering, confirmed that Littleover was targeted because it was considered an affluent area and, moreover, had good road links.
This CCTV footage, released from the Metropolitan police, shows a gang of thieves raiding a house in Chislehurst
The modus operandi of the Littleover burglars is evident from a second piece of CCTV footage.
The clip has not been released by the police, but was viewed by someone who lives in Hayes Avenue, where there was a break-in on February 10. The resident posted an account of the chain of events that culminated in the burglary on a community website called Spotted Littleover.
‘Two cars were involved, one keeps look out on another street while the burglary takes place,’ he wrote.
‘The scary thing is that it looks like they do some surveillance to figure out which car belongs to which household and at what times people are out.
‘This is sophisticated operation by these crooks and they’re targeting gold and money.
‘They climbed over a gate to get into a back garden and used a pickaxe to smash the patio door glass.
‘They drove down the street two hours later (between 9.40pm and 9.50pm), but quickly reversed back when seeing two of us stood outside the property. They even had the audacity to pip their horn twice to rub it in. The two guys have caps on and scarves covering their faces so we can’t make out what they look like.’
Again, the car in question was a silver Audi.
Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, has warned that such burglaries are often committed by highly organised, itinerant Eastern European crime groups, who typically target a region for a short period before moving on.
The gangs, according to one senior Scotland Yard officer, sometimes sleep up to 15 to a room in short-term rented homes as they move around the country and share details of potential targets.
In 2016, a Lithuanian gang was jailed for a total of 35 years for 120 burglaries in Derbyshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, North Wales and Staffordshire. More than £300,000 in cash and hauls of expensive jewellery was stolen in the prolific four-month crime spree by Gytis Dambaokas, 30, Tomas Juospaitis, 31, Grazvydas Kasarauskas, 34, and Giedrius Batutis, 33.
Three members of another Lithuanian gang — Dainius Gastilavicius, 41, Arturas Malysovas, 23, and Tomas Paulavicius, 38 — were also jailed in 2016 for 21 years after at least 84 burglaries across Devon, West Sussex, Suffolk and Norfolk.
Oxford Crown Court was the setting last year for a case that also shed light on the foreign burglary gangs now targeting Britain.
The defendants, Ailin Miranda, 22, and Alfredo Rodriguez, 34, admitted breaking into a property in Oxford and taking cash, jewellery and cufflinks worth £15,000 when they appeared in the dock.
The pair, sentenced to 20 months in prison, claimed to have been trafficked and exploited. But the prosecution put forward a very different scenario.
They were, in fact, part of a Chilean gang that is sending criminals to Britain to target high-value homes in two-week crime sprees. They are then flown back to the South American country and replaced by another wave of burglars.
Back in Littleover, police said there has been a dramatic reduction in incidents in the neighbourhood. The burglars have moved on, in other words.
But where will they strike next?