Burglars who terrified victims jailed

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The Independent Online

A gang of three men stole at least £70,000 from more than 70 pensioners across the country, duping their way inside their victims’ homes by pretending to be police officers, in what is thought to be the biggest series of distraction burglaries ever seen in the UK.

James Connors, 18, his 20-year-old cousin, also called James Connors, and Jerry Cassidy, 30, stole from their elderly victims, one of whom was 99-years-old, in a three-month period, often carrying out up to six burglaries a day.

Once they took the £20,000 life savings of a pensioner, while on other occasions they left with as little as £5. The three men targeted elderly victims who were unable to fight back and whom they knew would have difficulty remembering what the men looked like. Only two of the 72 victims correctly identified the men when shown photographs by the police.

Five of the victims died following the burglaries, deaths brought on by stress resulting from their ordeal according to family members. While one had a heart attack after the men locked her in her own home.

After being charged the men pleaded guilty and yesterday were each sentenced to 10 years in prison at Winchester Crown Court. Judge Patrick Hooton said it was “as bad a series of burglaries as you can get” and added: “Words like appaling and hideous have been used by your own counsel but that does not even begin to describe what you have done.”

The Connors cousins and Cassidy, a family relative through marriage, were caught in Scotland in April 2008, after a police officer noticed their car being driven erratically.

The vehicle, an Audi RS6 they had stolen from a young mother in Middlesex, beating her in front of her child and taking the keys, was linked to the distraction burglaries of 13 pensioners in Hampshire and so the English force was called in.

After the men were charged with those 13, officers from Hampshire’s Serious and Organised Crime Unit, linked them to a further four cases in the country and another 55 in the rest of England and Wales. Their offending took them to South Wales, Derbyshire and Cumbria among others. They also face separate charges in Scotland.

The method used by the trio was described by officers leading the investigation as “predatory”. They would drive high performance vehicles, always stolen and capable of outrunning police cars, along the motorway, stopping at random towns or cities along the M4 or M6.

Then they would look for signs that a house was home to elderly residents. Detective Sergeant Dan Hope, the officer in charge of the investigation, explained: “They would look for homes with net curtains, unkempt gardens or houses with handrails on the outside.

“They would target people late in life who were very vulnerable and who would stand little chance of fighting back or picking them out at an ID parade. They also knew that people of that generation are less likely to use banks than people nowadays and so there was a chance there would be a lot of cash in the house.

“They were also quite clever about where they went. They seemed to realise that if they hammered the one area they would be caught quicker than if they spread their offending across the country. They knew that officers from Cumbria, for example, would be unlikely to seek help from Hampshire police with regards to one robbery in their area.”

To get inside the houses the men would usually claim to be police officers or utility workers from the water, gas, or electricity board. Then they would threaten the pensioners, in some occasions with a small wooden truncheon, into handing over cash or jewellery.

They stole £43,000 in cash between February and April 2008. But, given that the youngest Connors cousin bought a £25,000 Volkswagen Golf with cash, and taking into account the value of various items of jewellery stolen, police say it is likely the men had been operating before they were caught and will have stolen at least £70,000 in total.

Det Sgt Hope added: “I am sure that there were more burglaries than the 72 we know about. There are probably three times as many.

“These were organised and sustained attacks on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. None of the property has been recovered and the value of what they took is incalculable. Items of tremendous sentimental value that span a number of generations were also taken and sadly have never been found.

“Their behaviour was violent and threatening. They displayed no sense of shame for what they did, and remained callous and unapologetic throughout.”