Jailed: the family that stole £30m of property from stately homes

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The Independent Online

For two decades, they have been the scourge of the aristocracy, launching audacious raids on some of the country's most prestigious stately homes.

Now, after notching up a series of record-breaking thefts, featuring in their own TV documentary and earning the dubious honour of being the sole subjects of a dedicated police operation, five members of the notorious Johnson clan are serving jail terms of up to 11 years each.

The gang struck rich homes across Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Worcestershire between April 2005 and October 2006 – including Britain's biggest-ever burglary, taking property worth £80m from the Wiltshire home of the property tycoon Harry Hyams.

Their robberies included raids on the country retreat of the Formula One advertising mogul Paddy McNally, and the home of the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, Sir Philip Wroughton.

Police recovered antiques, art, porcelain and jewellery worth £30m, stolen by the Johnsons.

Ricky Johnson, 54, was sentenced to eight years for his role in the theft of millions of pounds of antiques, cars, and precious metals. His sons Richard "Chad" Johnson, 33, and Albi, 25, were given sentences of 11 and nine years respectively. His nephew Daniel O'Loughlin, 32, was jailed for 11 years. Michael Nicholls, 29, partner of a Johnson family member, was given 10-year sentence.

All five were sentenced at Reading Crown Court in January, but their raids can only now be reported following the end of other cases against the clan.

Paul Reid, for the prosecution, described the gang as ruthless and highly organised. Their preparation was meticulous: they sometimes surveyed a property for weeks before a robbery. Antiques worth £26,000 were taken from a home in Marlborough, Wiltshire, while the occupants watched television.

The gang became so prolific that four of the country's police forces – Gloucestershire, Thames Valley, Warwickshire and West Mercia – set up "Operation Haul" at the end of 2005 to catch them.

But they did not prevent the biggest heist, in February 2006 at Mr Hyams' Ramsbury Manor, near Marlborough. The gang made off with antiques worth tens of millions – Britain's biggest-ever domestic burglary.

The tide began to turn during a botched robbery of Stanton Harcourt Manor in Witney, Oxfordshire. After being disturbed, Albi Johnson leapt from a first-floor window, breaking both legs. He told police he had fallen from his brother's roof. The Johnsons were held in October 2006 after a study of mobile phone records, CCTV and speed camera footage.

The Johnson family's infamy earned them their own BBC documentary, Country Strife: Summer with the Johnsons made in 2005. It featured Ricky and Chad Johnson, both now in prison, and Jimmy Johnson, the head of the family, known as "King of the Gypsies". In the film, they talk about hare-coursing and fighting, and their contempt for the law. Chad was shown urging his children to fight and said he would "only rob your house if I feel the need".

Judge Christopher Critchlow, sentencing, described the raids as "one of the most serious examples of conspiracy to burgle ever to come before the court". He added: "Little of the property has been recovered and is no doubt well hidden."