‘It was clear right from the outset that we were dealing with professional criminals’

Det Insp Ross Toms
Det Insp Ross Toms
The smashed glass in the door at Johnny Black Photography in Southsea

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THE robbers took ‘every possible’ step to avoid being caught.

For months Stewart Last, Richard Loveridge and Andrew Smith avoided detection, planning raids in advance and disguising themselves in balaclavas and dark clothing to commit their crimes.

Winchester Crown Court, where the gang was convicted yesterday, had heard that the men were ‘forensically aware’, on occasions wearing white suits and gloves to avoid leaving any shred of evidence.

Detectives say the organised gang paid no taxes but drove high-performance vehicles and splashed out on goods including Rolex watches and designer shoes funded by their criminal lifestyles.

But the net closed in when Hampshire Major Investigation Team launched a probe following the £50,000 armed raid on Nationwide in Park Parade, Leigh Park on November 25 2011.

Detectives linked similar robberies in which £105,000 and £85,000 respectively was stolen from Nationwide in West Street, Fareham, and a Santander branch in Farnborough within two months of the Leigh Park raid.

Det Insp Ross Toms, who led Operation Quaker, said: ‘It was very clear from the outset we were dealing with highly professional and resourceful criminals.’

Detectives soon uncovered a catalogue of robberies linked to the gang and started to build the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of evidence.

The men often maintained ‘radio silence’ on mobile phones while committing their crimes, but at some points ‘couldn’t help themselves’.

Despite leaving no forensic evidence, police painstakingly pieced together their movements by analysing mobile phone data which placed them near crime scenes when some offences were committed. They analysed hits on Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras, tracking movements of vehicles.

Detectives studied CCTV, gathered witness evidence and used enhancement techniques and vehicle experts to identify vehicles connected to the robberies.

In January 2012, police probing an unconnected incident tracked a vehicle to a lock-up in Berkshire where they carried out a search.

They discovered stolen property and evidence including a disc cutter the same colour, model and make as that used in the Fareham and Farnborough robberies.

Officers seized a sledgehammer embedded with glass fragments from the Leigh Park robbery and an attack on a police car in Bracknell on December 9.

Det Insp Toms said: ‘By convicting these individuals the prevention of crimes they would have committed in the south of England is immeasurable.’