A ROMANIAN gang who admitted stealing cable from the railway line between Moreton-in-Marsh and Evesham have been sentenced to a total of 23 years in prison.

The eight men – who all live in Birmingham – were arrested as part of a major British Transport Police (BTP) operation and were sentenced at Birmingham Crown Court today and yesterday.

Jan Trofin, 36, Alexandru Tofaleanu, 29, Mihai Mihart, 26, Mihai Binta, 27, Florin Cojocaru, 19 – all of Parkhill Road, Birmingham – along with Stefanel Ruset, 19, of Kentish Road, Birmingham, Christian Toader, 24, of Selsey Road, Birmingham and Costinel Mijloc, 24, of Highfield Road, Birmingham, all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal railway cable from the railway network.

The criminals were sentenced to between four years and five months and 20 months in prison, with Trofin, Mihart and Binta also recommended for deportation once their sentences are complete.

The court heard the gang struck at least 22 times under cover of darkness between November 3 2011 and May 24 2012, stealing around 6,000 meters of cable.

Network Rail was forced to pay up to £500,000 to replace and repair the cables, and train operators also incurred fines for delays and disruption.

BTP officers were first alerted on November 3 2011 when Network Rail reported a loss of power to signals in the Chipping Campden area. A quantity of cable was discovered cut and stored at the location awaiting collection.

A number of other incidents along the rural Cotswolds line were reported in the subsequent days and weeks , promoting a major investigation by BTP officers who began patrolling the line overnight and using covert cameras and alarms to track the thieves.

The first breakthrough came in the early hours of February 5 2012 when two men – Ruset and Marius Stana – were arrested near the Blockley Crossing after a chase involving police dogs and a helicopter.

Although Marius Stana is thought to have fled to his native Romania while on bail and is still wanted by police in connection with the conspiracy, the arrests led to officers being able to links a number of men to cable theft sites through forensic evidence and their mobile telephone records.

Eleven men were arrested following raids on five addresses in Handsworth and Smethwick in Birmingham on May 24 2012 – the eight defendants and three others who were later released without charge.

Prosecuting solicitor Michael Duck told the court it was clear that Trofin, Mihart and Tofaleanu were in charge of the gang, while Binta, Cojocaru and Mijloc were described as “willing foot soldiers”.

Judge Robert Orme said each theft had a major impact on the rail network and passengers whose trains were delayed or cancelled as a result of the criminal activity.

“Trains were halted and reduced services were put in place leading to inconvenience for travellers and great cost to Network Rail,” he said.

“It also posed potential safety issues to rail staff tasked with replacing stolen or damaged cables and also to people out walking near the line or on foot crossings at these rural locations, as live wires were often left exposed.

“These are clearly very serious offences of theft involving sustained, professional offending which require, in my view, a deterrent element in the sentencing.”

Detective Inspector Andy Irwin-Porter, who led the BTP investigation, said the organisation would not cease to investigate and fight cable theft.

“These sentences show that it simply is not worth considering stealing cable from the rail network,” he said. “Our officers will find you and do everything in our power to bring you to justice – just as we have seen in this hugely complex and demanding case.”

Network Rail managing director Patrick Hallgate said the sentences sent a strong message to anyone considering stealing cable from the railway.

“I cannot over-emphasise just how serious these crimes are,” he said. “Cable thieves deny passengers the service they rightly expect and, through the massive cost to the industry, deny everyone improvements to rail services.

“We are doing everything we can to protect the railway and will continue to work closely with BTP and other rail partners to do everything in our power to deter thieves and bring those who attack our network to justice.”

The sentences are as follows:

• Mihai Mihart – four years and five months imprisonment.

• Jan Trofin – four years imprisonment.

• Alexandru Tofaleanu – four years imprisonment.

• Christian Toader – two years and nine months imprisonment.

• Stefanel Ruset – two years and six months imprisonment.

• Costinel Mijloc – two years imprisonment.

• Mihai Binta – 20 months imprisonment.

• Florin Cojocaru – 20 months imprisonment.