The ringleaders of a gang who stole £3.3 million worth of goods, including seventeenth century books by Galileo, were jailed for more than five years.

The gang of at least 12 men carried out highly-organised warehouse burglaries across London, Peterborough, Sheffield, St Albans, Milton Keynes and Nottingham where they stole items including laptops, tablets, phones and ancient writings. The burglaries happened between December 2016 and April 2019.

Most of the men were flown into the UK from Romania specifically to carry out the raids, before being flown out again.

Gavril Popinciuc, 45, the “brains” and Cristian Ungureanu, 41, the “brawn”, plotted raids that involved cutting holes in roofs and skylights of warehouses, abseiling down to avoid sensors that would have set off alarms.

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Leahu at the Stone Group burglary. Photo: CPS

In one warehouse burglary in Feltham, the gang stole rare books valued between £1.5 million and £3 million. The works by astronomer Galileo, scientist Sir Isaac Newton and eighteenth century Spanish painter Francisco Goya had been shipped from Italy and Germany, and were being temporarily stored ahead of onward delivery to a book fair in the USA.

The heist was carried out in January 2017 on a company called Frontier Forwarding by the international mafia gang, which has links to organised crime groups around Europe.

An earlier hearing heard dozens of the books were damaged by damp, two beyond repair, after being found in a Romanian rural house in a raid last month.

The burglary spree was busted after members of the ring left a bottle of milk and a drink can with traces of their DNA at the scene of two of the burglaries.

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Police recovered approximately 200 culturally significant books including works by Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, from a rural location in Romania. Photo: SWNS

  • Christian Unrgureanu, 41, from Romania, received five years and one month imprisonment. He was extradited from Italy.
  • Gavril Popinciuc, 45, from Romania, received five years and eight months imprisonment
  • Narcis Popsecu, 34, from Romania, received four years and two months imprisonment for his role as the 'travel agent' and 'driver' of the operation
  • Traian-Daniel Mihulca, 32, from Romania, received four years jail time for sourcing vehicles and allowing laptops to be stored at his home
  • Ilie Ungureanu, 37, from Romania, received three years and eight months imprisonment for transferring the books from Romania to the UK. Ilie was living and was extradited in Germany.
  • Victor Petrut Opariuc, 29, from Romania, received three years and seven months imprisonment. He was one of the men who broke into the Frontier Forwarding warehouse to steal the book.
  • Vasille Ionel Paragina, 28, from Romania, received three years and eight months imprisonment
  • Marian Albu, 41, from Harrow, received four years imprisonment
  • Liviu Leahu, from Romania, 39, received three years and eight months imprisonment
  • Daniel David, 37, from Romania, received three years and seven months imprisonment
  • Paul Popeanu, 35, of Hemel Hempstead, received three years and three months imprisonment
  • Marian Mamaliga, 34, from Romania, received four years and one month imprisonment

The 12 men all either pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit burglary or one count of conspiracy to conceal, convert, disguise, transfer and remove criminal property, or to both charges.

A thirteenth defendant who has pleaded not guilty will be tried next March.

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The books were located and stolen in 16 large bags. Photo: SWNS

Judge Jonathan Davies said to Popinciuc on Thursday: “There has been some dispute in the hierarchy of this criminal organisation.

“Prosecution contends you were the overall lead of the organisation.

“The defence argues there are factors that lead to a different conclusion.

“I have come to the conclusion there is nothing for me to decide one way or another that you were higher in the organisation than Cristian Ungureanu.

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The books were recovered on September 16 after Romanian officers discovered them buried underground at a home. Photo: SWNS

“I am satisfied both of you were at the top of the organisation and intend to make no distinction between you.

“You worked together in this business as an organisation run by both of you. I am satisfied that you had a more overseeing and more controlling role, while Cristian Ungureaunu had a more practical responsibility.

“I reject the suggestion that you had a lesser role than Cristian Ungureaunu that only he could give away the location of the books.

“There has been a marked distinction between both of your approaches in this case.

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Taken after the Charles House burglary. Photo: CPS

“Mr Popinciuc you began fighting this case asserting your innocence. Cristiain Ungureanu has behaved the exact opposite way from day one.

“It is a mitigating factor for you that the books have been recovered, albeit with some damage.

“I take that factor into account in the sentence that I pass.

“This was a well-planned and executed conspiracy to plunder goods from British warehouses and units with a value of £3 million.

“That property left the country for the most part and was driven away by other members of the organisation.

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Taken after the Charles House burglary. Photo: CPS

“There is no doubt in my mind that this was for profit.”

Judge Jonathan Davies said to Ungureanu: “You saw fit to travel across Europe to the UK to commit serious crime.

“No doubt you identified rich pickings. You were extradited from Italy.

“You are not a man of good character. You have a conviction relating to pickpocketing in Austria in 2006.

“That was an offence of dishonesty but a different level of the offences that were heard in this court. It was 14 years ago.

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Leahu at the Stone Group burglary. Photo: CPS

“Many will never understand why some people such as yourself believe it is okay to steal other people’s belongings leaving chaos in your wake.

“In any event that previous conviction says something about the type of man you are or were but does not need to aggravate the offences that I am dealing with today.

“In this case I am satisfied you were a leader and organiser of the burglaries and of the onward movement of criminal property.

“You were present at the scene of the burglaries although you didn’t get involved in the entrance to properties yourself.

“You oversaw their execution, you recruited co-conspirators, involving your brother for example, to move criminal property.

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The corner of the office from the Milton Keynes burglary. Photo: CPS

“No doubt he was someone you could trust with such precious cargo. He was trusted to get the books to a safe place in Romania.

He added: “Your method was to move property in eastern Europe and act if it was out of reach of the authorities here.

“You did not bargain for the cooperation and joint investigation by the British and Romanian police which to their credit and to the benefit of the public in both the UK and Romania.

“You have a brother who is also to be sentenced in this case and I understand you are both concerned about your elderly parents who are left without the support of either of you.

“Whilst I understand your anxiety, you must have appreciated the risk that you were taking and the effect it could have on others if you were caught.”