East London and Essex raids: 17 arrests, 25 stolen BMWs, Jaguars and Range Rovers and £180,000 seized
- Credit: Adriana Elgueta
What started with a routine stop and search in Loughton last November has come to fruition in a major operation involving around 450 officers in 22 locations across east London and west Essex.
Since Operation Hemlock began with a routine search which led to an individual car theft, through intelligence shared between Essex Police, the Metropolitan Police, the British Transport Police and the National Crime Agency (NCA), the forces have worked collaboratively to make the links back to one gang of organised criminals stealing vehicles across the region.
At 5.45am on Thursday, February 27 officers simultaneously raided properties in Romford, Rainham, Dagenham, Leyton, West Ham, Navestock, Hockley, Grays, Basildon, Benfleet and Waltham Abbey.
In Navestock, the pre-dawn raid struck at three idyllic farms with operating stables and farm animals. They used a 'jankel' - an armoured truck of extreme force - to smash down the tough iron gate, with around 100 officers on site. The NCA used chainsaws to break open the hinges of outbuildings to secure the area and retrieve the cars.
There have been 17 men aged between 19 and 48 who have now been arrested. In addition, £180,000 in cash was seized - some of it reported as being wads of cash stashed under floorboards - and £90,000 in jewellery.
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Twenty-five stolen vehicles - BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes and Range Rovers - worth £1.1million were recovered. Police are investigating a further 90, with a value just shy of £5m, as possibly having been stolen. This also included parts from other vehicles and 10 stolen flat bed van backs worth £100,000.
Acting Supt Lewis Basford, of Essex Police, said: "Clearly there will be more [offenders], but that figure shows how lucrative this business is."
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The vehicles have been confirmed as being taken from Havering and Barking and Dagenham as well as many locations across Essex - Shenfield, Witham, Loughton, Brentwood, Ingatestone, Epping, Audley End, Billericay, West Horndon and Hockley.
Although the gang were predominantly stealing and selling on vehicles, they were also what the superintendent called "pan-offenders" with a 200-plant cannabis farm being found in the Leyton raid as well as firearms found in other locations.
"We also know that groups carrying out vehicle thefts are involved in other types of crime, such as drugs, and that causes misery to our communities," said the superintendent.
"That makes it doubly important to disrupt and dismantle these groups."
He explained that in order to sell on cars, the gang used equipment for making new identities for the vehicles, as well as key cutting equipment and equipment used to gain access to keyless cars.
They would clone keys to steal the motors and change the identity of the cars by switching their number plates and replacing the code numbers, before selling them on for more than £100,000.
Supt Basford said: "The people behind these types of offences are organised and professional.
"They're experienced at giving a vehicle a new identity and then selling it on to an unsuspecting member of the public."
Often it may not be identified for several months that a vehicle's identity has been cloned, by which point the criminals have their money and are long gone.
He added: "Gangs make millions of pounds in profits through this crime and can re-invest that money into other forms of crime which cause further harm to the community.
"Organised crime groups who carry out vehicle theft are sophisticated and professional, and this investigation is complex and will take time.
"These warrants were the culmination of excellent collaborative working between three forces but the work does not end here."
The arrested men have now all either been released on bail or released under investigation pending further enquiries.
Essex Police said if they identify any victims of the stolen vehicles recovered, they will be contacted by the British Transport Police investigation team.