United Kingdom

Romanian Mission Impossible gang that stole £3.3m worth of rare books admit guilt

Members of a Romanian 'Mission Impossible' gang that stole £3.3million worth of rare books and electronics in a series of heists across Britain have confessed to a series of charges. 

Hundreds of rare books worth millions of pounds were stolen in a sophisticated heist by the crime gang - who also carried out 11 other raids, Kingston Crown Court was told.

The group broke in by cutting holes in the roofs of warehouses, then abseiling down to avoid sensors that would have set off alarms. 

Most of the burglaries were carried out on warehouses storing electronic goods, but one break-in saw the gang steal 170 rare books worth around £2.5 million.

Twelve burglaries in which £3.3 million worth of goods were taken were conducted between December 2016 and April 2019 by the thieves, most of whom were flown into the UK from Romania specifically to carry out the raids, before being flown out again.

The goods were then shipped around Europe or back to Romania.

Rare works by the 17th Century Italian astronomer Galileo, along with those of Sir Isaac Newton and the 18th Cenury Spanish painter Francisco Goya, were taken in a warehouse burglary in Feltham, west London, while waiting to be sent to Las Vegas for a specialist book auction.

A total of 12 suspects pleaded guilty and are being sentenced via video at Kingston Crown Court in a four-day starting today

The heist was carried out in January 2017 on a company called Frontier Forwarding by the international mafia gang, which has links to organised crime groups around Europe.

Some of the multi-million pound collection were deemed to be of international importance and are considered irreplaceable.

A total of 12 suspects pleaded guilty and are being sentenced via video at Kingston Crown Court in a four-day starting today.

They all either pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit burglary or one count of conspiracy to conceal convert, disguise, transfer and remove criminal property, or to both charges.  

The defendants being sentenced include Marian Mamaliga, 34, Traian-Daniel Mihulca, 32, Vasile Paragina, 28, Narcis Popescu, 34, Daniel David, 37, Victor Opariuc, 29, Gavril Popinciuc, 45, Vasille Ionel Pragina, 28, Liviu Leahu, 39, who all live in Romania.

Marian Albu, 41, from Harrow, west London, and Paul Popeanu, 35, of Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, are also being sentenced, as is Ilie Ungureanu, 33, who is from Romania, but was living and was extradited from Germany.

Cristian Ungureanu, 41, from Romania, was extradited from Italy to being charged and sentenced.

Catherine Farrelly, prosecuting, told the court: 'All of the premises that were targeted were commercial premises and the goods stolen in most of the burglaries were desirable high-value and portable electronic goods such as tablet computers, laptops and smartphones.

'The primary exception to this was the second burglary at Frontier Forwarding which concerned the theft of a number of rare and precious books of significant cultural importance.

'Several of the burglaries involved entering the premises from the roof and dangling by ropes in order to try and avoid tripping the buildings' security systems.

'Most of the defendants travelled to the United Kingdom from Romania in order to execute the burglaries, the only exceptions being Marian Albu and Traian Mihulca, both of whom appear to have been living in the UK at the relevant times and Victor Opariuc, who appears to have been living in the UK in early 2017.

'The defendants formed a sophisticated criminal network to commit high value, well-planned burglaries on commercial premises. The premises were usually warehouses or freight businesses where one would expect a significant amount of small but high value items such as smart phones, computers and tablet computers.

'The criminal property was then moved onwards out of the UK or to those willing to buy it or back to Romania where it could be sold.

'The network was overseen by Gavril Popinciuc. He has a criminal conviction in Romania from 2015 for setting up an organised crime group.'

Cristian Ungureanu and Narcis Popescu were responsible for organising the burglaries then transporting the stolen goods, the court heard.

Both travelled to the scene of the burglaries and oversaw their execution, while Popescu also organised travel and accommodation for the co-conspirators, the prosecutor said.

Not long after one burglary Popescu was stopped by police in Romania with a series of electronics that he could not provide a receipt for, the court heard.

Rare works by the 17th Century Italian astronomer Galileo, along with those of Sir Isaac Newton and the 18th Cenury Spanish painter Francisco Goya, were taken in a warehouse burglary in Feltham, west London, while waiting to be sent to Las Vegas for a specialist book auction (file image)

Others were linked to the burglaries through DNA and fingerprints.

The theft of the books saw two of the defendants cut holes in the perimeter fence, then cut a holes in the skylight and abseil into the warehouse.

Describing the way the gang stole the haul of rare book, Ms Farrelly said: 'At that time, the warehouse was holding a number of rare culturally significant books including works from Sir Isaac Newton, the eighteenth-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya and relating to the Italian astronomer, Galileo.

'These books had been shipped from Italy and Germany and were being stored in preparation for onward delivery to a book fair in the USA. The books belonged to three separate book dealers.

'Two of the book dealers were Italian - one from Pavia and the other from Padua. The third book collector was from Berlin in Germany.

'They had a combined insurance value of something in the region of £2m and their cultural significance was immense.'

An estimated £12,00 was paid by the firm to repair the damage and for extra security while the company also lost roughly £35,000 of business, the court heard.

Company director of Frontier Forwarding, John Binstead, described how the books were stolen from the metal freight containers in which they had been transported.

In a victim impact statement read to the court by the prosecutor, he stated, 'Also taken from the warehouse were 16 Baker Hugh's bags. It became clear that the books were the only items taken despite the fact that the warehouse was full of freight and were items that would have been more traditional for burglars to take such as electronic items.'

Ms Farrelly added: 'The fact nothing else was stolen is indicative of the targeting of the books and immediate transportation out of the UK.'

The Met investigation identified the suspects involved were part of a feared Romanina Mafia group - the Clamparu - that were behind a string of high-value warehouse burglaries across the UK.

This particular Romanian Organised Crime Group (OCG) is linked to a number of prominent Romanian crime families who form part of the Clamparu crime group, Scotland Yard said.

This group is based in the Ia*i region in Eastern Romania and have a history of complex and large-scale high value thefts, yet have mainly avoided prosecution by offending outside Romania.

Ms Farrelly told the court: 'Forensic examination of the interior of the warehouse [in Feltham] was conducted. A bent metal bar which was not previously in the warehouse was seized.

'The bar was examined and swabbed. The DNA profile obtained was compared with a reference profile taken from Daniel David and it has been confirmed that Daniel David's DNA is a match.

'DNA recovered from the headrest of the driver's seat matched that of Narcis Popescu. It was noted that there was a strong smell of cleaning fluid present inside the vehicle.'

The books were shipped out of the UK in a Mercedes van through the Eurotunnel in bags on July 2, 2017, along with another stolen electronics.

Natalina Bado, one of the Italian owners of the books said via the prosecutor: 'The loss and possible dispersion of this collection represents a very serious damage not only for our company, but in general for world culture and for the correct circulation of knowledge at the highest level, since many of our customers are prestigious libraries, foundations, universities and museums.'

It took the international manhunt made-up of the Met Police, the Romanian National Police and the Italian Carabinieri, along with Europol and Eurojust, more than three years to track the books down to the Romanian countryside, stashed under floorboards.

Police carried out a series of raids that led them to the find earlier this month.

During the course of the investigation, another 11 offences in London and across the UK were uncovered by police, where a further £2 million worth of property has been stolen, generally using the same method of entering through the roof.

This culminated in coordinated arrests and searches of 45 addresses across the UK, Romania and Italy in June 2019, police said.

Other burglaries included a raid on GPSK Warehouse in Peterborough where mobile phones and tablets worth £150,000 were stolen overnight on December 6, 2016.

A total of £700,000 damage was done to the warehouse, the court heard.

After the theft of the rare books, £340,000 of electronics were stolen from a refurbishing company where hundreds of Macbooks, 520 iPhones, 240 Samsung tablets and 400 iPads were taken by the gang.

Another raid in Southall, north west London, saw £26,000 in cash and goods stolen, along with around £57,000 worth of Lenovo laptops were taken and over £11,000 worth of damage caused to a warehouse in St Albans in July 2017.

At this raid, the burglars left behind a number of the laptops, the ladders that they had used to gain entrance as well as a balaclava or snood and a black bin liner, which had the DNA of one defendant and a fingerprint of another.

The hearing continues.

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