The outlaws of Worcester county

The police knew who they were, but for years the gang of Travellers were untouchable. They netted up to £100m in art and antiques in a series of audacious raids. David Randall reports
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The Independent Online

Country house crime is not what it was. No longer do amateur cracksmen pad across hallways to rob their host's library safe as he sleeps; the likes of cat burglar Peter Scott are caught no more shinning up aristocrats' drainpipes to steal their gems and furs; and George "Taters" Chatham, student of Burke's Peerage and The Tatler, whose victims included the Maharajah of Jaipur and the Countess of Dartmouth, has gone to the great remand cell in the sky.

Lately, as Reading Crown Court has heard, it's more likely to have been a gang of travellers, crashing in through the gates in a stolen 4x4, crowbarring open the French windows, filling a few dustbins with Louis Quinze figures, ormolu clocks and silverware, and then haring back to their hideaway in the Vale of Evesham.

This was an altogether more violent form of light-fingered heritage tourism. These men may have preyed on stately homes, but they had more in common with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang than they did with Raffles. In their thieves' kitchen of a Worcestershire caravan site, they would plan the robberies, ride out, commit them on mansions in southern England, and then bury their haul. In a few years, they netted maybe as much as £90m-worth of antiques, including the single biggest domestic burglary in British history. The police knew they'd done the jobs, and the gang probably knew the police knew. But, for a long time, they were untouchable – the closest thing to a band of outlaws this country has seen for a long time. They were the Johnsons of Worcester county.

Each of them had more form than a Derby winner. Ricky Johnson had 22 convictions for 57 offences dating back to the Sixties, including, in 1997, defrauding old people through a cowboy building company called Christian Construction. One son, Chad Johnson, had been convicted for fraud and metal theft. The other son, Albi Johnson, had 10 convictions for 19 offences. A nephew, Danny O'Loughlin, had been found guilty of handling stolen goods, metal thefts, burglary and dangerous driving. And his son-in-law, Michael Nicholls, had 17 convictions for 28 offences.

Chad Johnson's 2007 conviction for conspiracy to defraud is instructive. His victim was Tania Campbell, a pathetically trusting heiress who had spent much of her adult life in institutions or receiving treatment for schizophrenia, whose mother had been shot dead when she was nine years old, and who was 38 years Johnson's senior.

She was 66 when she met him at Shadow Arts, a Cheltenham gallery the Johnsons briefly owned. In December 2002, Chad, a keen painter, married this vulnerable and eccentric woman who had a shopping obsession so chronic that she once bought 21 fridges in a single day. Within two years, all of the £200,000 she had when they met was gone, she had sold all her shares, was £90,000 in debt and had been persuaded to sign over her only home to her young husband (who then sold it at a knock-down price to an associate, Richard Slender).

Despite her sad protestations of love for Johnson at his trial, it was a curious married life. He never allowed himself to be alone with her, never spent a night with her (preferring the bed of Carly Gill, the mother of his three children) and told her that his perpetual absences were due to his work for the secret service. Finally, the rooking of this lonely old woman was too much even for one of Johnson's associates, who shopped him. The man was immediately placed under a witness protection scheme. Johnson was jailed for three and a half years.

The gang's break-ins at country houses were an altogether different kettle of criminality. The jobs for which they were convicted began in April 2005 with a raid on Woolley Park, Berkshire, the home of Sir Philip Wroughton. There followed in quick order: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, home of Lord and Lady Sandys, Ramsbury Hill House, Wiltshire, and Warneford Place, Wiltshire, all in October; then Spetchley Park, Worcester, and Stanton Harcourt Manor, Oxfordshire, both in November. It was robbery at an almost compulsive pace, and climaxed with the raid on the 17th-century Ramsbury Manor, Wiltshire, in early 2006.

This was the home of Harry Hyams, a fabulously rich property dealer and art collector. His home contained one of Britain's largest assemblages of art and antiques in private hands, and on the night of 1 February, the Johnsons set out to get as much of it as possible. Driving across country in a 4x4 with the headlights off, they approached the estate by a wood, used wire-cutters to remove a thick cable that ran round the property's two-mile perimeter, motored to the rear of the house, disabled the alarm, forced a window, and were in.

In a little over 10 minutes they had visited seven rooms, scooped up 340 objects into some clean plastic dustbins they had found by the house, and would have got more if they had not then triggered an alarm, forcing them to flee. Their total haul of antiques, a £1m 17th-century clock, jewellery, a Rubens and china has been valued at anything between £30m and £80m.

Save for being what the police called "forensically aware" (that is, they left no dabs) and their knowledge of alarm systems (some of which could not have been gleaned from their usual way of casing the joint – training binoculars on it from a convenient bush), the Johnsons' methods were no more sophisticated than those of Wild West bank robbers clattering into the local Wells Fargo office and leaving chaos behind. There was no discreetly insinuating their way into premises; instead, doors were broken down with metal spikes and windows smashed with garden ornaments. Nor were their getaways all that well choreographed – at Stanton Harcourt Manor, Albi Johnson broke both legs jumping from a window in his hurry to escape. Some of the antiques they took suffered rather more permanent damage.

The Johnsons were not like previous country house robbers, who studied, even admired, the ways of their "social betters". They were outlaws whose attitudes had been strangely well-recorded long before their arrest. In 2005, a film of them in their caravan-park fastness called Country Strife: Summer With the Johnsons was shown on BBC3. Particularly telling was an interview with Ricky Johnson. "I would like to make it clear to the people out there, to police and the rich people like Lord Rothschild – if I feel the need ... when I have got to rob a stately home, I will do so ... I feel I have got the fucking right to rob the lords out there. I feel I have got the right to rob the lords, sirs, and the ladies."

The year the film was shown was also the period when the stately home robberies reached a crescendo. By late October, the seriousness of the spate of crimes (and they would eventually include other robberies, such as shop raids, the stealing of a Royal Crown Derby collection from a mobile home in Tenby Wells, and thefts of high-value metals at six businesses in three counties) had prompted the police forces of Gloucestershire, Thames Valley, Warwickshire, and West Mercia to pool resources in what would become Operation Haul. Wiltshire joined five months later. In time, Haul would investigate 116 country house robberies and cash-dispenser and metal thefts in the five areas over a 20-month period.

A month after the robbery at Ramsbury Manor, the police got the breakthrough they needed. Acting on a tip-off, they went to a field beside the A439 at Black Hill, near Stratford-upon-Avon, owned by John Lee, father of Johnson associate Charlie Lee. They opened the trapdoor to an underground bunker where agricultural machinery was usually stored, and found boxes and bins covered with straw, inside which were 140 items stolen from Ramsbury. These included a pair of Bow porcelain busts, a Regency white biscuit ormolu and marble clock, and a rare Vincennes white chinoiserie vase. Around 30 of the pieces were damaged, some seriously.

There were two more reported thefts, but, in June 2006, the police arrested some of the gang for an attempted metal robbery in Cheltenham, and then, in October, swooped on the others for the country house raids. The metal trial concluded in October 2007, with the jailing of 12 people, including Chad Johnson and O'Loughlin; then, in February this year, these two, plus Nicholls, Albi and Ricky Johnson, were convicted of conspiracy to burgle country homes. Reporting of the trial's outcome was restricted until other cases against the family were concluded.

The trial answered all the leading questions except one: where have all the items gone? Some, police believe, have been sold, at probably a tiny fraction of their market value. And there have been suggestions that some of the more conspicuous and valuable items have been sold to Russian billionaires anxious to fill their many-roomed mansions with baubles but none too bothered by questions of provenance.

Other parts of the Johnsons' swag may, like part of the haul from Ramsbury, lie buried in the countryside at locations as yet unknown. A police operation is still trying to track down the missing items, or any assets the gang may have salted away. No obvious proceeds have been found, but a confiscation hearing is due next month.

In court, the Johnson gang looked a great deal less impressive than they did in their caravan hideaway surrounded by their dogs and supporters. Chad Johnson, Ricky Johnson and Nicholls refused to give evidence, O'Loughlin spoke his denials in a high-pitched voice, and Albi Johnson leafed, in an apparent daze, through documents until he confessed that he was illiterate. After they were sentenced to a total of 49 years (Chad and O'Loughlin got 11 years, Nicholls 10, Albi nine, and Ricky eight), Ricky pleaded his innocence to the judge and others were visibly shaken before being led off to the cells. The police were elated. After the gang's arrests, reported the Gloucestershire Echo, serious burglaries in the area dropped by 90 per cent. The Johnsons of Worcester county were outlaws no more.

The Johnson family

Ricky Johnson, 54

Father. Had offences dating back 43 years. Sentenced to eight years.

Chad Johnson, 33

Son. Spent his pensioner wife's £200,000. Jailed for 11 years.

Michael Nicholls, 29

Son-in-law. Had 17 convictions for 28 offences. Jailed for 10 years.

Danny O'Loughlin, 32

Nephew. Convictions for metal theft and dangerous driving. Jailed for 11 years.

Albi Johnson, 25

Younger son. Already had 10 convictions for 19 offences. Jailed for nine years.