Crime on a budget: Estonian gang's jewel raids by budget flight
PUBLISHED April 10, 2012
The jailing of Janno Heinola, 33, for nine years ended a seven-year operation in which eight men have been locked up for a total of 82 years.
West Yorkshire Police were alerted to the crime ring when Berry's jewellers in Leeds was a target four times between 2005 and 2007.
Detectives found the gang was linked to at least 150 armed robberies in Britain and Europe.
On one raid in Leeds in 2007, in which the robbers were caught on CCTV brandishing guns at staff, the gang took jewellery worth more than £374,000.
In total they were estimated to have made more than £2 million from 11 raids in Britain, and are also thought to have taken jewellery worth more than £100 million during robberies in Finland, Italy, Sweden and Monte Carlo.
The recorder of Leeds, Peter Collier QC, thanked police for their "dogged pursuit" of the gang members, who also used hammers during raids.
Heinola was jailed at Leeds Crown Court this week after admitting his part in a raid with two other men at Berry's on Aug 6, 2005.
He and two other men threatened seven members of staff and a family as they took Rolex and Cartier watches worth £92,750.
Heinola's DNA was found on a cigarette butt that was discovered where he had been sitting before the robbery. In February, he was extradited from Düsseldorf following a jail term for an earlier robbery in Germany. He pleaded guilty to robbery and possession of an imitation firearm with intent.
Heinola was the last of the gang of eight to have been brought to Britain since 2009. The others were Algo Toomits and Joonas Jarvsoo, who were both jailed for 12 years; Sarik Sander, who was jailed for 11 years; Rauno Kuklase, Ivo Parn and Reigo Janes, who were all jailed for 10 years; and Raivo Loige, who was jailed for eight years.
Detectives from West Yorkshire led the investigation on behalf of other forces including West Midlands and Greater Manchester, leading to gang members pleading guilty to 11 armed robberies, including daylight raids at jewellers in Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Wolverhampton and Chester.
The gang, who are thought to have recruited their members by getting them into debt through drugs, caught cheap flights into the country before being met by a contact who gave them details of the robberies. Officers believe the jewellery, mainly comprising Rolex or Patek Philippe-branded watches, was shipped out of the country on cargo ships before being sold in Eastern Europe or Russia.
The breakthrough came when detectives working alongside the Serious and Organised Crime Agency were able to link the DNA found close to the scene with an Estonian DNA database.
Det Insp Lloyd Batley, who led the investigation, said: "This marks the end of a number of years hard work by detectives, who have traced eight suspects across Europe in order to bring them to justice in Leeds." He said the robbers, who were based in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, were encouraged to make Western European countries targets after the country joined the EU in 2004, coupled with the availability of cheap flights.
Mr Batley said: "The intelligence suggests the ringleaders recruited foot-soldiers by getting them involved in debt, and when they could not repay that debt they were given these jobs to do.
"They would then be booked on to cheap flights in a group to commit these robberies. They already had contacts in the UK who would usually reconnoitre the premises. They used hammers but also imitation handguns we believe they picked up locally.
"Once the watches had been stolen they often changed clothing and discarded it nearby - which is how we recovered DNA - then the watches changed hands.
The group would then go back the next day and the stolen merchandise usually went out of the country through ferry channels."