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Criminal gang members who arranged to test-drive more than 20 high-value cars before distracting the salesmen and driving off with the vehicles have been jailed...

The gang targeted both dealers and private sellers around Yorkshire and Derbyshire, stealing a total of 23 new and second hand cars worth almost £300,000 including a £28,440 Land Rover, £15,750 Audi and a Mercedes C220 sports car.

They would arrange for test drives in secluded areas before stealing the cars using a variety of methods to distract salesman or the owners.

Most of the cars taken by the gang between January and April last year were quickly stripped down for parts and only three were recovered.

Jailing three of the gang members, Recorder Richard Wright QC told Leeds Crown Court that he was satisfied Ernest Moate, 61, and Dean Harding, 33, played the leading roles in the operation, with Harding the main thief supported by Moate and another man, Richard MacInnes, 38.

Often the caller would pretend to be working as a contractor somewhere remote in Yorkshire or Derbyshire, asking the seller to to bring a vehicle to him for a test drive.

The court was told that one of the thefts took place on Janurary 31 last year, when a salesman from the Farnell Land Rover dealership in Bradford dealership was tricked into taking a £28,440 Land Rover to a farm in the village Denby Dale after a potential buyer claimed he was doing some logging in the area.

There he met Harding, who was using a false name, and together they drove five miles to nearby Bretton before pulling into a layby. After distracting the salesman, Harding made a dash for the vehicle and sped off.

Matthew Donkin, prosecuting, said the salesman alerted his manager and because the vehicle had been fitted with a tracker, activated after the theft was reported, police traced it to a garage belonging to another gang member Daniel Banks, 24, within half an hour.

By then the car had been fitted with false number plates was already being stripped down, with the bonnet and doors missing.
On February 8 last year another garage, Perry’s Motors in Huddersfield, was contacted by a man who asked for a vehicle to be taken to a quarry at Grange Moor. When the salesman arrived with a Vauxhall Astra a man matching Harding’s description got in for a test drive.

He drove to a gated driveway and while the salesman was out to open the gates, Harding drove away. The vehicle was never recovered.

The court heard that a private seller in Holmfirth was also contacted about a test drive of his £15,750 Audi, but when the seller went to lock his front door the man drove off in the car.

Other cars stolen in the operation included a Mitsubishi LC200, a £14,990 Mercedes C220 sports car, a Ford Transit van worth £20,000, a Range Rover Sport worth £29,000 and a £22,000 Mitsubishi Barbarian.

Ringleader Moate, described in court as a 'professional criminal' was jailed for five and a half years after he was convicted of conspiracy to steal motor vehicles.

MacInnes was jailed for two years, four months for conspiracy to steal vehicles and failing to attend court, and Banks was jailed for 18 months for handling stolen vehicles. All lived in Barnsley.

Harding had been sentenced at a previous hearing when he was jailed for three years and four months for conspiracy to steal vehicles, handling and robbery.

Four other gang members were also sentenced for their part in the thefts. Brett Williams, 24, was jailed for two years for handling stolen goods and Robert West, 28, was given a 15 months sentence suspended for two years with 300 hours unpaid work for handling stolen goods.

Craig Williams, 25, and Gary Williams, 32, who were each given 10 months in prison suspended for two years with 200 hours unpaid work for handling stolen goods.

'We worked for several months to investigate these offences and as we dug further it became increasingly apparent there were clear links between what at first seemed like isolated offences committed across the Yorkshire region,' said Detective Constable James Bellhouse, who headed the investigation, named Operation Trimgill.

'The investigation was extremely complex and our enquiries included visiting scenes, recovering and viewing hours of CCTV, house to house, forensic opportunities, receiving and evaluating intelligence obtaining and executing warrants, mobile phone work, liaising with other forces, surveillance and also a bit of luck.

'It highlights once again that today’s criminals can operate in a sophisticated fashion, targeting those who are vulnerable. It also demonstrates how well police officers can collaborate across districts and indeed police force areas to catch them.'