Shropshire Star

Gang of 'smartly dressed' shoplifters jailed after targeting stores across the country

Three shoplifters who were part of an organised group known as "the smartly dressed gang" by police, have been jailed by a Shropshire judge.

The group were arrested at Telford Forge Retail Park

The men, from various areas of Kent, were given a combined total of six years when they appeared before Shrewsbury Crown Court on Wednesday after admitting a charge of conspiracy to steal from shops.

John O'Donoghue, 69, of Astra Drive, Gravesend; James French, 42, of Taylor Close, Tonbridge; and Christopher Jenner, 37, of Lunsford Lane, Aylesford, were caught after a police sting last year that followed them to Telford where they were arrested at the Forge Retail Park.

The court heard how the men were part of an organised group that were involved in a series of thefts from chain stores around the country dating as far back as 2018.

Police had dubbed the group the "smartly dressed gang" after CCTV footage of various thefts in shops showed the men in shirt, ties and suits.

The thefts involved clothing, accessories and electronic items from shops such as Sports Direct, the Range and M&S.

Prosecutor Phillip Beardwell KC told the court was told that one or more of the gang would enter the store, often with somebody acting as lookout, and select items in bulk. These were removed from the shop without paying, often with the help of bulky coats.

He said that following a series of national thefts around the country, a police operation was arranged that followed the group from Sittingbourne in Kent on May 3 last year.

The group in a transit van hired by Jenner, were followed by police officers to the West Midlands where they were spotted in a Solihull retail park loading coats into the van.

Officers continued to watch the group as they travelled to a retail park in Tamworth, where police saw more clothing being loaded into the van from a BMW, which was being driven by Jenner.

The men were then followed to Stafford where the surveillance team lost sight of them, but they were picked up again and followed to Telford's Forge Retail Park where they were arrested.

The court heard that three of the gang members were still being sought by police and that it was "impossible" to estimate the value of items stolen over the last five years, but it was thought to be in the "thousands of pounds".

In imposing a combined jail sentence of more than six years to the three men, Judge Peter Barrie told them: "It involved frequent expeditions to visit shopping centres and retail parks across the country, often going with a number of vehicles, and going with a fluctuating list of people.

"Three of these people are yet to be apprehended and it is likely there are more involved.

"An enterprise on this scale is not properly described as shoplifting as it is a highly organised crime conducted over a long period of time."

He added: "If I had before me the leaders and organisers I'd be looking at a starting point of five to six years in prison each.

"Because of each of you on more than one occasion played a part, often visiting several shops in course of an expedition, none of you can say you played a small part in it."

He jailed James French, who he was told had 26 previous offences, for 28 months.

Jenner, who had just one previous conviction, was jailed for 24 months.

O'Donoghue, who had two previous convictions in the 1970s, was jailed for 19 months, which Judge Barrie suspended for two years.

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