They took the families hostage and threatened to castrate children, pull out fingernails and bomb homes. Brian Higgs QC, for the prosecution, said they asked one mother to choose which of her children should die.
The families were terrorised during raids on three banks and a Tesco supermarket between April 1989 and August 1991.
John Calton, 37, of Sowerby Close, Eltham, south-east London, Robert Moore, 23, of Station Road, Southminster, Essex, and Sean Wain, 23, of Hermes Drive, Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex, deny four charges of robbery and four of having a sawn-off shotgun with intent to commit robbery.
Mr Wain's father, Robert, 48, of Honiton Road, Southend, Essex, denies conspiring to rob and handling money from one of the raids.
Mr Higgs told Chelmsford Crown Court that the first three men had taken part in four armed robberies that were 'cruelly and ruthlessly' carried out. 'They burst into homes wearing balaclava helmets and carrying sawn- off shotguns or other lethal weapons,' he said.
'The victims were families in either Essex or London. The husbands, wives or children were kidnapped and held to ransom before the actual robberies occurred. These families were subject to mental torture and some physical attack.'
Mr Higgs added: 'They would threaten appalling injury or death to the wife or children . . . if they did not co-operate in the theft of substantial sums of money. The marked similarity in their methods can only lead to the conclusion that it was the same team in each case.'
He said the gang's first target was Barclays Bank in Kelvedon, Essex, in April 1989.
Two men forced their way into the home of Simon Culling, assistant manager, armed with a shotgun. Mr Culling, his brother, mother and step-father were handcuffed and hooded overnight before Mr Culling collected pounds 40,000 from the bank in the morning.
Mr Higgs said another pounds 70,000 was taken from the National Westminster bank in Sydenham, south-east London, after two men broke into the home of a bank official, David Coles. His sons were threatened. The next day Mr Coles collected the money from the bank.
Mr Higgs said the gang raided the home of Robert Chittenden, manager of Barclays Bank in West Norwood, south London, in January 1991. The Chittendens were told to choose which one of their daughters would be drugged and locked in the boot of a car. 'It was a choice which the family found impossible to make.' But the 12- year-old daughter, the elder of two sisters, volunteered.
The family was released when the bank paid pounds 75,000.
The last raid was at the home of Bernard Andrews, manager of Tesco's store at Copdock, near Ipswich, in August 1991. Mr Andrews was asked how he would feel if one of his sons was castrated. He collected pounds 55,000 from the store.
The men were arrested after an accomplice in the Tesco robbery was caught, Mr Higgs said.
Lorna Burns, Mr Calton's girlfriend, also contacted police after she found three guns hidden in her kitchen.
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