It was a three-year horticultural crimewave that baffled victims and police: a phantom flower snatcher sabotaging hopes of civic glory by stealing hundreds of trailing geraniums, roses and cordylines, hanging baskets, pots and assorted garden ornaments.
As the deadline for this year's Yorkshire in Bloom loomed ever closer and locals stepped up their efforts to garland villages in colour, the thefts increased.
Enough was enough, detectives decided. A constable was assigned to gather intelligence.
And now, after a helicopter surveillance operation, the mystery of the green-fingered thief may well have been solved: a police raid in Elloughton, East Yorkshire, has led to the arrest of a suspect.
Following a tip-off, a Humberside police helicopter on patrol was diverted to make a reconnaissance swoop over the anonymous-looking semi-detached home of a quiet man in his forties.
The subsequent examination of aerial photographs startled officers: behind the respectable façade lurked a backyard that bore more than a passing resemblance to Kew Gardens.
Police moved in and arrested a 46-year-old local man, who is understood to live quietly with his partner at the address. He is currently on bail.
It took seven officers, including one with a working knowledge of horticultural Latin, an entire day to remove and classify the contents of the back garden, where everything from gargoyles to garden gnomes was discovered.
PC Shaun Bagley, who apprehended the suspect, said yesterday that the number of plant thefts in the normally sleepy villages of Elloughton, South Cave and Swanland (west of Hull) had soared dramatically in the countdown to this year's Yorkshire in Bloom contest, prompting police to take action.
"I honestly don't know what the motives are behind these thefts," said PC Bagley. "I'm led to believe these items have not been stolen to sell on, but simply to enhance a garden."
The 330 articles recovered are worth an estimated £10,000. Police will now seek to reunite the plants, troughs, antique chimney stacks, and even an ornamental hedgehog on a motorbike with their owners.
"People were getting very reticent about growing the plants and putting them out," said lollipop lady Sue Duckles, who reported for duty a fortnight ago to find the beds on both sides of the road she supervises completely denuded of vegetation. "They were getting pretty fed up – they were putting plants in only to find someone had then stolen them a couple of days later before they were properly established."
The thefts resulted in a spike in the crime statistics: an additional 40 separate crimes reported in the villages in recent months. Many more people are believed to have lost items but have yet to report them to police stations.
While garden thefts, raids on sheds and allotment stores traditionally spike in the spring and early summer, the sheer scale of the disappearances around Elloughton left villagers stunned.
Hanging baskets disappeared from outside pubs and parish council buildings, while lovingly tended flowerbeds were stripped clean overnight, sometimes within hours of being planted.
But Humberside Police have found themselves embroiled in a new row: with just days to go before the crucial inter-village judging, the Elloughton-cum-Brough In Bloom committee is urging police to hand over the evidence immediately so it can boost villagers' chances of winning the competition.
Committee chair Coleen Gill said: "The police won't let me have the plants back until a disclaimer form can be signed, even though we have photographic evidence. There is only a few days left until judging and it doesn't look like we'll get the plants back in time. Some areas are still looking sparse."
A spokeswoman for Humberside Police said the force was keen to return the flowers as soon as possible, but had been having problems returning them to the rightful owners because many had been re-potted. Locals have been booking 30-minute slots to view the recovered items at Brough police station. Anyone who believes they may have been a victim is being urged to come forward.
PC Bagley said: "You are talking a lot of money – some of the chimney stacks are worth £200 to £300. But the time and effort people have put into them far outweighs the cost implications. We have had people coming to us in tears over these thefts."
A report by Halifax Home Insurance has found that gardens are increasingly being targeted by thieves. It outlined a 63 per cent rise in the number of claims for equipment, with the average payout totaling £433.
The Royal Horticultural Society advises gardeners to protect their plots by planting spike hedges and locking shed and tool stores. It recommends putting bricks in tubs and planters to make them too heavy to carry, and to photograph and postcode mark the most valuable items to help police recover them.