A BRENTWOOD man was among a gang who made millions of pounds stealing luxury cars from Essex on a scale never seen before in the UK.
Despite his involvement in the multi-million pound theft of high-priced motors, which included Land Rovers, BMWs and Audis, Blackmore builder Lee Fullick, 51, escaped a prison sentence.
Fullick appeared at Southwark Crown Court on Friday alongside his two accomplices, both of whom are now behind bars.
Ringleader Alan Watkins, 42, of Maltings Lane, Witham, used a "systematic and highly organised" system to make false identities for expensive cars.
Over a number of years, it is thought he made £3.5 million from the process of stealing and cloning vehicles before selling them on.
Their colleague, Sukvinder Matto, 35, a drug addict and professional car thief from East London, was also jailed.
Prosecutor David Durose said: "Watkins was involved in car-ringing on what can only be termed as on an industrial scale over many years."
Watkins specifically targeted high end models, which cost between £15,000 and £40,000.
He would single out vehicles in car parks across Essex and, when the owners left their car, a gang member would target it with a signal blocker, preventing the remote-controlled locking systems from working.
The thief would then enter the unlocked car and hack into its computer system to access information on its key before installing a GPS tracking device.
The information was then passed on to Watkins, who created a copy of the key so that thieves could steal the car, without causing any damage to it, at a later date.
After this process, the vehicles were then cloned – the stolen car was given the identity of another vehicle of the same make, model and specification.
The gang succeeded in doing this by identifying cars that had been exported to Cyprus. An application was then made to the DVLA for a duplicate logbook for the exported car and the gang targeted a similar model in the UK.
To ensure the stolen cars looked legitimate, Watkins then created "ringing packages" consisting of bundles of documents and identification certificates.
The group had been linked to more than 150 separate stolen vehicles, but police also found details of a further 500 cars in Watkins' home.
Mr Durose said: "This is a conservative estimate as the seized evidence – including Watkins' own records of his offending – suggests the true figure may be significantly higher."
The court heard that Watkins was caught out when his laptop was seized when he was arrested in connection with an aggravated burglary that he was later acquitted of.
When police raided his home, they found evidence of car-ringing, as well as a stun gun, pepper spray, a CS gas canister, 9mm ammunition and false driving licences. Photos of Watkins surrounded by cash were also discovered.
For police involved in the investigation, the scale of crime was unlike any that the Metropolitan Police had ever had to deal with.
Fullick and Matto were later linked to Watkins' gang through the police investigation.
Sentencing, Judge Anthony Pitts said: "This offending is top-end car ringing. The extent of the criminality involved was sophisticated and high value – hundreds of vehicles were involved in one way or another.
"It was planned and executed with what in another field might have been termed commendable professionalism and attention to detail."
Watkins admitted conspiring to steal and conspiring to handle stolen goods, as well as possession of a stun gun, pepper spray, CS gas canister, and three counts of possession of a false identity documents with intent. He was jailed for eight years.
Fullick pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiring to handle stolen goods and was given a 12-month prison sentence suspended for two years. He was also ordered to carry out 150 hours of unpaid work.
Matto admitted conspiring to steal and was jailed for 16 months.
A confiscation hearing will take place in relation to Watkins and Fullick later this year.