A 24-year-old thief from Evesham was part of a gang that stripped tonnes of lead worth millions off churches.

The four men, one from the Worcestershire town, targeted 36 churches over two years between May 2018 and March 2020, stripping tonnes of lead worth almost £2.1m.

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Between them they were jailed for 20 years when sentenced at Lincoln Crown Court this week.

Mihai Birtu, 24, of Port Street, Evesham, admitted 14 thefts. He was jailed for three years and seven months.

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Constantin Motescu, 32, of Stebbings, Sutton Hill, Telford, admitted 23 charges of theft. He was jailed for six-and-a-half years.

Paul Buica, 25, of George Street, Birmingham, pleaded guilty to 16 counts of theft. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment.

Laurentiu Sucea, 38, of George Street, Birmingham, pleaded guilty to 13 thefts committed between May 2018 and March 2020. He was sentenced to six-and-a-half years.

The three Wiltshire churches targeted by the gang were: St James, Bratton, St Andrews, Donhead St Andrew and St Peters, Stourton, in the grounds of National Trust property Stourhead.

Col Mike Manson, churchwarden at St James, Bratton, where the thieves removed between four and five tonnes of lead from the roof, said: “In physical terms, the theft has obviously caused a lot of problems because we had to very quickly put in a temporary covering to stop water coming in. We just about managed to do that before the heavy rain started, but even then some rain did come in so there is staining on the internal walls of the church.”

The church was now looking to replace temporary coverings with a permanent stainless steel solution that, although more resistant to theft, would cost tens of thousands of pounds to install.

Det Ch Insp Jon Shield of Lincolnshire Police, which led the investigation, welcomed the jail sentences doled out to the gang. He said: “The vast majority of these churches will have had insurance in place, but the insurance only covers a small part of the costs so congregations have been left to foot the remainder of the bill.

“The impact of these offences goes well beyond the significant financial cost. Communities have felt a great sense of loss at the damage caused to their heritage, and increased vulnerability due to the rural nature of many of the premises. Some of the buildings are thousands of years old so these men have potentially destroyed hundreds of years of our heritage.”

Mark Harrison of Historic England added: “The metal stolen will have historic and cultural value and its removal leads to irreparable damage to protected heritage buildings, which is why tackling this problem is so important."