Operation Castle: Biggest ever operation sees five jailed for more than 23 years
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Detectives from Operation Castle, our dedicated burglary team, are welcoming the sentencing of five people to a total of 23 years and three months in prison (plus two suspended sentences) as part of the biggest investigation the team has overseen into a regional Organised Crime Group (OCG) responsible for a total of 162 burglary, theft and attempted burglary offences.
The investigation was launched in January 2020 after an increase in residential burglaries across Merseyside, Lancashire and Cheshire, in which high performance vehicles with an estimated value of £2.6 million were stolen, and often recovered in the Blackburn area of Lancashire.
The theft offences investigated were keyless entries, in which wireless key signals were cloned, enabling the offenders to open the vehicle on the driveway, start the engine and drive the vehicle away. This means the criminal is able to avoid having to break into homes to steal key fobs.
Assisted by Cheshire and Lancashire Constabularies, Merseyside Police co-ordinated the investigation and the following sentences have been handed out.
(L-R: Sireen Rafiq, Lewis Tankard, Neil O'Brien, Noah Hassan and Stephen Hooten)
36-year-old Sireen Rafiq (also known as Shamilia Tabassum) of Seacole Close, Blackburn, Lancashire was sentenced to 21 months for transferring criminal property
20-year-old Lewis Tankard of Seel Road, Huyton was sentenced to five years and seven months for conspiracy to commit burglary and conspiracy to steal motor vehicles
19-year-old Neil O’Brien of Prestwood Crescent, Knotty Ash was sentenced to six years in prison for conspiracy to commit burglary and conspiracy to steal motor vehicles
29-year-old Noah Hassan of no fixed abode was sentenced to four years and nine months for conspiracy to commit burglary and conspiracy to steal motor vehicles
29-year-old Stephen Hooten of Craigburn Road, Tuebrook was sentenced to five years and two months for conspiracy to commit burglary and conspiracy to steal motor vehicles
Additionally, 50-year-old Paula Heathers of The Green, Stoneycroft was sentenced to 14 months suspended for two years and 115 hours of unpaid work for possessing criminal property. Heathers and the six others all pleaded guilty.
20-year-old Susan Russell of Corner Brook, Stockbridge Village, was sentenced to 12 months suspended for two years, 60 hours unpaid work and a curfew, following a trial at Liverpool Crown Court.
Three more men will be sentenced later this year.
The OCG were believed to have been responsible for 162 offences in total, including burglary, attempted burglary and theft.
Detective Sergeant Darren Hankin of Operation Castle explains more: “It is very pleasing to see this OCG dismantled following an extensive operation, working closely with our colleagues at our neighbouring Cheshire and Lancashire forces.
“It soon became clear that this OCG were sophisticated, prolific and causing misery wherever they went. A conspiracy was evidenced in which the OCG organised their burglary of vehicles and their onward distribution via a network of associates.
“On October 20 2020, a strike day took place across Merseyside and Lancashire and seven of the suspects were arrested and subsequently charged. The remaining three were later charged and the vast majority, faced with overwhelming evidence, pleaded guilty prior to trial.
“Operation Castle is a dedicated team of detectives and we’ve seen more than 500 years in prison handed out to suspects since we launched in 2018. Every sentence handed down makes the communities of Merseyside and beyond safer from the harm, distress and inconvenience that burglary brings.
“We understand that burglary often has a massive impact on victims. It can be a really personal and invasive crime and victims can struggle to come to terms with offenders having entered their homes and stolen personal items, which don’t always have huge monetary value, but on a personal level can be irreplaceable.
“Key to these successes can often be information from those communities targeted, so I would continue to ask people to report anything suspicious, and come forward with any information you may have seen or heard.
Discussing the keyless thefts, Detective Sergeant Hankin continued: “Theft offences we investigated as part of this operation were keyless entries, something we have seen emerging in recent months in Merseyside and elsewhere.
“As well as the undoubted deterrent of today’s sentences, we’re keen to educate owners of keyless cars on some simple, inexpensive steps they can take to minimise the chances of their cars being stolen in this way.
“While keeping your keyless entry fobs out of sight or hidden is recommended, it does not necessarily stop it from being cloned.
“We are asking car owners to consider investing in a Faraday Bag/signal blocking case for their keys. They block the signal from the fob, are relatively inexpensive – costing as little as around £5 - and are widely available online.
“It is important however to research the product you are buying and once purchased check that they effectively block the signal by trying to open your car while the key is in the bag or case.
“Additional physical security devices, such as mechanical steering locks, driveway posts, wheel clamps and trackers are also effective in protecting vehicles from thieves. If you have a vehicle that is not keyless, it would be advisable to park this in front of the keyless vehicle.”
Other tips for keyless car owners include:
• Contact your dealer and check if your vehicle has any outstanding software updates, which may improve security • Check if the keyless fob can be turned off/on, your dealer can confirm and advise how to do this • Be vigilant, and report any suspicious activity in your neighbourhood to the police
Detective Sergeant Hankin also passed on some general crime prevention advice: "Many burglaries are still preventable as offenders are often opportunistic. Lock your front and back door even when you are in, set your burglar alarm when you go out or go to be and consider getting CCTV.
"We continue to remind people over the summer that on hot days, although it might be tempting to leave windows and doors wide open to cool down, be careful not to leave yourself vulnerable by leaving your home in this way.
“It’s also a good idea to use light timers when you go out at night or during the summer holiday period, keep valuables out of sight, and secure your shed and garage too. Look out for your neighbours, especially the elderly, and report anything suspicious to us.”
Detective Sergeant Ian Bingley, from Cheshire Constabulary’s proactive team in Warrington said: “This was a painstaking and complex investigation involving all three forces working jointly to gather and collate evidence that would lead to identifying and capturing the organised crime group’s conspiracy.
“They would commit the burglaries during the night, this was at times terrifying for the victims who were at home at the time. They ruthlessly forced their way into the property, searched for the keys to the owner’s high powered vehicles and then drove away with the cars."
Further information on crime prevention can be found Crime prevention advice | Merseyside Police or on our local Twitter and Facebook pages. You can follow the hashtags #OpCastle #BeatTheBurglar to see updates.