A gang of thieves caused £250,000 worth of delays and disruption to a multi-million pound railway project by repeatedly stealing copper cable using hacksaws before making getaways on quad bikes.
Five men appeared at Sheffield Crown Court to be sentenced over the theft and sale of around £23,000 worth of copper cable taken in early 2014 on the line of the North Doncaster Chord project.
The £45m railway flyover scheme was designed to carry freight trains instead of them using the East Coast Main Line and slowing down commuter services.
James Baird, prosecuting, said Network Rail had estimated the cost of the thefts to the public purse was in the region of £250,000 due to the delays and disruption they caused.
On one occasion, three members of the gang were seen leaving the scene of a crime by a group of campers - with the criminals dropping the stolen cable and running off but only after being photographed and later identified by the quick-thinking witnesses.
Sheffield Crown Court heard other members of the gang are yet to be caught - while Judge Simon Lawler QC said he was frustrated that new legal guidelines on such thefts meant he could not impose tougher sentences on those who had been caught, with only one of the men being imprisoned and the others walking out of court.
One member of the group, Anthony Fretwell, aged 32, was later caught with thousands of pounds worth of Class A drugs in a shed at his home intended for use in street dealing while on bail for the cable thefts.
He was found to have around £2,000 worth of heroin and crack cocaine to the value of £700, while £3,000 in cash was recovered from his home.
Fretwell was involved in the first of the thefts between February 4 and 5, 2014, contacting co-defendant Reece Cocks on February 6 who went on to sell the stolen cable for £3,100 at Yorkshire Metal Recycling in Doncaster.
Fretwell and James Scott were then involved in an attempt with another man to take cable from the network - only to be caught in the act by a group of campers leading them to drop the stolen goods and flee.
Fretwell was also involved with the further theft of cable sold for £949 by fellow defendant Shane Granger, who also sold £97.50 worth of stolen cable on a later occasion.
Scott also took part in a further cable theft near a crossing on February 28.
Mr Baird said: “There were others involved and clearly further up the scale than these men.”
Sentencing the five men, Judge Lawler said: “Over a period of weeks at the beginning of 2014, you were all involved either by stealing or weighing in quantities of copper cable, with a total value of some £20,000.
“The matter is made more serious when account is taken of the disruption and delay which was caused to this building operation.
“In times gone by, each of you would have received an immediate sentence of imprisonment.
“I found the guidelines in this particular case difficult, if not impossible, to apply. I find myself unable to impose the sort of sentences I would have preferred and would have imposed prison sentences in some cases.”
DC Bob Hunt from British Transport Police said: “This was an audacious plot to steal cable from the rail network and sell it on in exchange for cash.
“Thanks to the efforts of British Transport Police, irrefutable evidence presesented in court proved Fretwell, Scott, Cocks, Hackett and Granger’s involvement in the crime.
“The message here is clear – anyone who decides to engage in criminal activity of this sort to make some quick cash should be mindful that we will do everything in our power to bring them to justice and, as in the case of Fretwell, they will be dealt with severely by the courts.”
Fretwell, aged 32, of Asquith Road, Bentley, was sentenced to three years and nine months in jail for theft and attempted theft offences, as well as possession with intent to supply.
Jacob Scott, aged 21, of Grosvenor Crescent, Arkesey, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment suspended for 12 months and will have to carry out 180 hours unpaid work, as well as being subjected to a four-month curfew.
Jack Hackett, aged 22, of Arthur Street, Bentley, was given a 12-month community order, 100 hours of unpaid work and will pay £200 prosecution costs.
Reece Cocks, aged 25, was given a 12-month community order, 150 hours of unpaid work and a three-month curfew for his role in the gang, as well as for possessing cannabis valued at around £1,000.
Shane Granger, aged 24, received a 12-month community order, 120 hours of unpaid work and a three-month curfew.