Gang jailed for country home raids

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The Independent Online

Five members of a gang behind a string of raids on stately homes - including Britain's biggest ever burglary - have been jailed for up to 11 years each, it can be reported today.

The "organised and ruthless" group, all part of the same notorious traveller family, stole antiques that experts estimate could be worth more than £80m.

A court heard that the gang targeted a number of wealthy homes across Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Worcestershire where they knew there would be "rich pickings" during a year-long spree.

The men would stake out the country mansions, sometimes for weeks, pinpointing the best means of entry and escape.

Then they would strike - breaking in wearing balaclavas, scouring rooms and escaping in stolen cars within minutes while leaving little or no trace.

Their targets included the Wiltshire mansion of property tycoon Harry Hyams, where they stole property worth millions in a raid described later as the UK's biggest ever private house burglary.

Other victims included Formula One motor racing advertising tycoon Paddy McNally and Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire Sir Philip Wroughton.

Those behind the raids were part of the Johnson family - an organised criminal gang who detectives say have plagued the South of England for 20 years.

Richard "Chad" Johnson, 33, and Daniel O'Loughlin, 32, were both jailed for 11 years, Michael Nicholls, 29, was given 10 years, Albi Johnson, 25, was jailed for nine years and 54-year-old Ricky Johnson was given eight years.

They were all found guilty of conspiracy to commit burglary between 8 April, 2005 and 13 October, 2006 following a month-long trial at Reading Crown Court.

They were sentenced in January but the case can be reported for the first time today following the conclusion of other cases against the family.

Ricky Johnson is the father of Chad and Albi and O'Loughlin is his nephew. Nicholls was the partner of his daughter, Faye. The family were based at a static caravan park in Evesham, Worcestershire, where they plotted the high-value raids.

A jury heard that some properties were burgled while the householders were inside and on one occasion two victims sat in their kitchen completely unaware the raid was taking place.

Paul Reid, prosecuting, said they were an "extensive and highly organised gang" who were "ruthless in their intention to acquire high-value property" from country houses.

They hit the home of Mr Hyams - Ramsbury Manor near Marlborough in Wiltshire - in February 2006.

Mr Reid said: "This has been described as the most valuable domestic burglary ever committed in this country. The collection is described as priceless.

"There is a difficulty in putting a value on antiques and antiquities - some of them very precious and very rare - but it is tens of millions of pounds."

When police arrested the gang, they estimated the haul was worth £30m. Sources in the art world say the figure is closer to £80m.

Two months after the Ramsbury raid, detectives found an Aladdin's cave of treasures in an underground bunker at a field owned by an associate of the Johnsons near Stratford-upon-Avon.

Inside were a number of black bins containing straw and numerous pieces of porcelain stolen from the Hyams estate - about a third of the total haul. Some of the priceless antiques had been damaged.

Among other targets were Warneford Place, the former home of James Bond author Ian Fleming, set in 1,000 acres in Sevenhampton near Swindon and owned by Mr McNally, who once dated the Duchess of York.