Exclusive: Organised crime gang behind more than 100 raids on housing developments
Organised criminals are targeting housing developments in Telford and detectives believe they've already conducted more than 100 raids.
The "amazingly brazen" burglars have stolen at least 52 boilers over a five year period, but police and site managers say other items such as high value tools, window frames, radiators, fuel, vehicles and machinery have been taken too.
Similar incidents are also taking place across the region.
It's thought the individual or individuals responsible have specialist plumbing knowledge to remove the boilers from the walls, and they seem to know which houses to hit.
They're incredibly audacious, say site managers, and have been known to simply walk onto sites "with confidence" and steal valuable items.
"We've had boilers stolen," said Danny Drayton, area build director at The Quarters at Redhill. "Last Christmas, seven boilers went here, and the site at Wombourne had about 25 to 30 boilers stolen during its life.
"There, they were just pulling a fence apart, smashing the windows, going in, cutting the pipes, often flooding the houses, then ripping the boilers off the walls."
"This is organised criminal gangs," said Sergeant Richard Jones of West Mercia Police. "The key is in the name 'organised'. These people are not idiots. A boiler is an extremely expensive piece of kit ... They're amazingly brazen"
The site where we met Danny Drayton to discuss the burglary situation on housing developments was actually targeted just a day after we visited, with a boiler and radiators stolen.
Officers and site managers suspect the boilers are "being taken to order" and believe the appliances are probably 'being redeployed in existing properties in the West Midlands.'
"It has to be someone who can say 'I can get you a boiler mate'. It couldn't be a resale to a shop or anything like that," said Tom Williams, senior site manager at The Quarters.
That's one of a number of reasons investigators suspect organised criminals are behind the up-tick in burglaries and thefts.
Detective Inspector Sean Brennan of West Mercia Police said: "We know that in the majority of cases it's actually boilers that are being stolen.
"But we are seeing other things going like power tools and so on.
"We're not clear on whether it's an individual, a group of individuals or sort of separate disparate groups that are responsible, but we suspect that there is an organised crime group in Telford," he continued.
"They live primarily in Telford, but also across Shropshire, and we suspect they are involved."
"I think it is a problem. It does suggest that there's an element of organised crime behind a lot of this.
"You've got to know people to be able to shift things like that and move them on and sell them and so on."
Investigations like this are challenging and complex, and require officers from different teams and often different parts of the country working closely together.
In Telford, police analysis suggests the criminals mainly strike between 5pm and 7am when there's "a limit on security," and often on Fridays when valuable materials like fuel may have been left on site in preparation for the following week.
Site managers added that periods of shut-down like Easter and Christmas also lead to a rise in the number of offences.
As a result, officers are urging site managers not to leave easily accessible fuel or valuable equipment on site over weekends. These sites don't tend to have permanent, on-site security due to the cost so they can be easy targets. With that in mind, police in Telford have upped their visible patrols to put would-be thieves off.
The aforementioned analysis suggests the two hotspots in Telford are Priorslee and Lawley simply because that is where a large amount of building work is happening at the moment, but sites in other parts of the town and across the county have fallen prey to similar incidents.
The tactics the criminals use to steal items from building sites vary, but they can be quite sophisticated.
Sergeant Jones said: "These really do range quite dramatically from the opportunist coming through the fence to the extremely good actor who turns up with a flat loader and says, 'I'm here to collect the boiler. They put the boiler on and drive off. That's literally happened."
Tom Williams added: "We've got diesel locked in big sheds, but if they want it, they'll have it. They just come in, cut the side out and siphon it off.
"On one occasion, they climbed the fence to reach the top of the containers, put a bag over the security camera there, then about five minutes later they were picked up round the back of the compound using wood from our yard to tap the other cameras down."
The analysis identified 103 burglaries on building sites between February 2018 and January 2023, but officers suspect the number of offences is much higher.
"It'll be higher than 103 but it's at least 103 that we know of," said DI Sean Brennan.
"Our analysis showed that the offences peaked in 2018, then tailed off quite significantly during Covid.
"But since lock-down we've started to see an up-tick and it's starting to sort of mirror what we saw pre-2020, so it is becoming a problem once again."
Similar offences have been taking place in other parts of the county and in other parts of the country.
North Wales Police, for example, have so far put five people in cuffs following a spate of rural burglaries in Gwynedd, involving high value agricultural machinery and quad bikes.
Three people were arrested on February 22 and two were picked up on March 1. All were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit burglary.
The serious organised crime team worked with Dyfed Powys and West Mercia Police to execute warrants at addresses in Shropshire and the wider West Midlands.
All five people have been released on bail, but the two arrested on March 1 were questioned in Telford custody.
To back up the idea that these offences are on the rise, we also spoke to NFU Mutual.
They confirmed that thefts claims data reveals that agricultural vehicles like tractors, quad bikes, all-terrain vehicles, pick-up trucks and Land Rover Defenders, are all currently attractive targets for criminals across Shropshire and beyond.
They said that in the past year, trailers have been stolen in large numbers too.
Increases in the prices of diesel, heating oil, fertiliser and machinery, they said, have made farms and properties in more rural areas vulnerable to organised criminals.
But this increase in organised burglaries and thefts is by no means a one-way street, with police taking a number of steps to counter the criminals.
Not only do officers obviously want the burglaries to stop, they also want to bring those responsible to justice, including anyone who might be 'pulling the strings.'
While investigations continue, a lot of what officers are doing to take on these very organised criminals on the ground is designed to be preventative.
"We're stepping up our overt patrols," said Sergeant Jones.
"As you will know, simply by driving past, very quickly, they get these houses occupied.
"So we're stepping up Neighbourhood Watches and things like that as soon as they're in, so they start to police themselves.
"And we do find that once the houses are starting to be owned, the thefts of kit drop off," he continued.
"When I went to speak to the site managers I said, 'please can you try not to fill your fuel bowsers at the weekend, you know, on Friday afternoon.
"We're trying to move the site owners away from taking those unwise security risks."
This is part of Operation Aegis, which is a multifaceted approach that involves police officers working directly with site security and other staff to prevent these crimes from happening.
PC Rob Hughes, a Safer Neighbourhood police officer working out of Donnington police station, said: "We're encouraging sites to adopt sign-in sign-out books, all-round CCTV and lanyards to identify on-site staff, so you only get people on the site who should be on the site."
PC James Fox added: "We understand it costs companies, but having someone present overnight would also help prevent some of these offences.
"From our point of view, the more we can do deter offenders from entering these sites and stealing, the better it is for everyone."
"We're constantly looking out for sources of intelligence to build a bigger picture and we visit the sites at different times of day and night," he continued.
Police are also keen to point out that those who buy stolen goods are partly responsible for driving this crime wave. PC Hughes said: "You have supply and demand, and the demand comes from people willing to buy stolen goods. If you buy something knowing it's stolen, then you are creating the demand and encouraging the person to go an steal, and in the end, everyone really pays."
Operation Aegis is important because it involves the people who actually work on the sites, but police need the public's help too.
They want anyone who sees anything unusual or suspicious near one of these sites, especially at night, to report it either via 101 or their website: https://www.westmercia.police.uk/
You can also contact the police anonymously via Crimestoppers: https://crimestoppers-uk.org/
Sergeant Jones gave a good example of something you might see near a building site that's worth reporting: "If you see someone moving diesel at seven o'clock on a Friday evening, it's vastly likely that it's illegal, so if you see anything after five o'clock, call it in."
Members of the public can also sign up to West Mercia Police's Neighbourhood Matters, a community-based tool designed to prevent and detect crime and anti-social behaviour: https://www.neighbourhoodmatters.co.uk/. It essentially gives you a better idea of what's going on in your local area.
Because of the serious organised nature of these crimes, multiple police forces are working together to bring about an end to the burglaries.
The overall message from all of the officers Shropshire Star spoke to for this report is clear: They will keep going until the burglaries stop and they catch those responsible.
"This operation will go on. We will continue to try and stem it," Sergeant Jones said.
DI Brennan added: "It is a problem that we are aware of, and we are working actively to tackle the organised, growing crime rate that we know exists in Telford, that drives a lot of the serious acquisitive crime".