A GANG of thieves who ran a ‘planned and professional’ shoplifting operation across the length and breadth of the UK has been jailed for more than 20 years.

Alin Mihai, Nicolae Ilie, Gabriel Mocanu, Marius Meirosu, Stafan Florin and Florin Costea – all Romanian nationals – conspired to steal items from Asda supermarkets in all corners of England, Scotland and Wales.

They succeeded in pilfering goods to a minimum value of £161,678 during a near four-month period before their scheme was rumbled by police.

Among the stores targeted was Asda Birchwood, where at least £4,054 worth of products was stolen – none of which could be recovered.

The supermarket was targeted on two occasions in April and May last year by Mihai and Ilie.

Warrington Guardian:

Alin Mihai

Warrington Guardian:

Nicolae Ilie

Mark Connor, prosecuting, explained to Chester Crown Court this morning, Tuesday, how the operation ran between April 28 and September 4 last year.

A total of 81 separate theft offences were captured on CCTV, allowing Asda’s internal asset protection investigation manager to investigate.

The thefts involved ‘skip scanning’ at self-service tills, where the defendants would fail to scan high-value items and instead scan low-value items repeatedly.

One credit card in particular raised a concern, which led the manager to review the CCTV footage for the gang’s first transaction that took place on April 19 at Asda Great Bridge in Birmingham.

The footage showed 38-year-old Mihai and 36-year-old Ilie, both of Birmingham, who failed to scan a £10 mop but did scan a 10p bag for life – just one step of the overall conspiracy.

A review of all footage from each transaction made with the same credit card revealed the ‘modus operandi’ of the operation.

The defendants would enter the store separately, Mihai would go to the printer ink cartridge aisle and Ilie would select low-value items, including one item that had a security tag attached to it.

As Mihai would place a large number of ink cartridges into a bag for life, Ilie would pay for the low value items on the self-scan till, before making his way to the exit and set off the alarm because of the paid for item with the tag as a distraction.

Meanwhile, Mihai would push a trolley full of high value unpaid goods through the barrier as the alarm sounded, with the security guard believing that the alarm was sounding because of Ilie.

On viewing further footage, it became clear that Oldham based defendants Mocanu (37), Meirosu (26), Costea (52), as well as 52-year-old Costea, of HMP Risley, were also involved on other occasions.

Warrington Guardian:

Florin Costea

Their downfall began after they targeted Asda Barons Quay in Northwich in June 2019 and stole approximately £1,000 worth of items.

Over the next two months, detectives from Northwich Beat Initiative Team worked closely with Asda and the National Business Crime Centre to identify gang members and link them to at least 80 other incidents across the country.

On August 22, Meirosu and Florin were arrested in Scotland at the Asda store in Clydebank while attempting to steal goods, while Mocanu, Meirosu and Costea were arrested on September 10 following a police raid at their home, where a large amount of stolen goods and bank cards were recovered, including perfume, alcohol, more than 50 razors and thousands of children’s nappies.

Warrington Guardian:

Marius Meirosu

Police also seized three cars which the gang had been using to commit their crimes.

On arrest, Mocanu pointed at Meirosu and said: “He’s the one in trouble, I was the driver and he paid me £50 per journey.”

Warrington Guardian:

Gabriel Mocanu

Ilie, who had left for Romania, was arrested on his return on January 13 at his Birmingham home.

Mr Connor revealed that all had previous convictions for theft or shoplifting, while Florin’s convictions also included entering the UK in breach of a deportation order and drug trafficking in Spain.

Warrington Guardian:

Stefan Florin

Highly convicted Costea has been sentenced for 13 theft charges in Spain, and was also given a six-year expulsion from Denmark for stealing.

Defence barristers tried to argue that the coronavirus pandemic had been a cause of the offending, with theft offering an easy way to make quick cash.

But this was rejected by judge Patrick Thompson, who said that people had been affected worse than the defendants and had not turned to crime.

Before sentencing, he said: “High value goods were targeted, with many stolen to order in a professional operation.

“You were all involved at some stage, you all knew what you were involved in and you all played a significant part in an organised plan.”

Each of the six was sentenced to 42 months in prison.

Following their sentencing, DC Paul Matchett said: “It is clear that this gang travelled to the UK with the sole intention of committing crime.

“They set up their base in Oldham and from there they travelled to stores across the UK and stole hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of items.

“They believed that they could evade justice by spreading their crimes across the country in a bid to keep a low profile.

“While their plan worked initially, they underestimated the partnership work between the police and the business community and they are now behind bars facing the consequences of their actions.”

Senior crown prosecutor Daryl Pollard said: “These serial criminals targeted various ASDA stores throughout the UK hoping to operate under the radar, stealing £160,000 of goods from supermarkets to sell on.

“We were able to unravel their crimes by carefully evaluating CCTV footage and analysing credit card transactions. We worked very closely with the police and stores to bring these criminals to justice.”

DC Matchett added: “I would like to recognise the work that Asda’s Asset Protection team has undertaken and I have no doubt that without their support this gang would still be targeting stores across the country.

“It’s important to remember that shoplifting is not a victimless crime, and it’s the general public who end up footing the bill through increased prices.

“I hope that the sentences handed to this gang provide reassurance to the public and business community and act as a warning for other offenders who think that retail outlets are easy targets.”

David Keane, police and crime commissioner for Cheshire, said: “This case has had a big impact on the business community and I hope that this conviction provides them with reassurance that crimes like this will be investigated properly and offenders will be brought to justice.

“This case was truly a nationwide investigation and I would like to thank the team at Northwich Beat Initiative Team, along with the staff at Asda and the National Business Crime Centre for their hard work and dedication in helping to bring this gang to justice.”