Burnt-out digger sits in front of the Tesco store in Crumlin, Co Antrim - 2019

A burnt-out digger sits in front of the Tesco store in Crumlin, Co Antrim – 2019

Ciarán Shiels of Madden & Finucane Solicitors represented two of the four defendants in the case where the defence exposed serious deficiencies in police mobile phone cell mast tracking evidence.

A gang who stole around £2m in a spate of ATM robberies mocked police by nabbing a cash machine in the shadow of a PSNI station bristling with the most sophisticated surveillance equipment.

Despite this the criminals stole a digger from a site adjacent to Antrim police station, broke down a security fence close to the barracks and nearby courthouse, and drove to a Tesco Extra.

There, they ripped out a cash machine that had been filled with money just hours earlier.

The PSNI was forced to set up a specialist task force to catch the gang after more than a year of ATM thefts that also resulted in hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage to business premises.

Expensive plant machinery stolen by the thieves was also torched to destroy evidence.

When combined, the cost of just two of the raids in October 2018 and February 2019 amounted to £429,000 between stolen cash, damage to property, and burnt-out hijacked plant machinery and vehicles.

This week Kenneth David Clarke was sentenced to five years and eight months after pleading guilty to three offences linked to the heists.

Jamie McConnell was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for the same offences.

Gary John Kincaid was sentenced to 11 months for two lesser charges linked to providing vehicles used by the gang.

And David Edward McClurkin was sentenced to a combination order of two years on probation and 60 hours’ community service for one charge of doing an act capable of encouraging or assisting in burglary or theft between April 10 and 16 2019.

Detectives originally believed the gang was using Farset Business Park in west Belfast to dismantle the ATM machines and extract the cash.

This was mentioned during several bail hearings for the accused, with police expressing fears they may interfere with witnesses at the sprawling industrial estate just off the Springfield Road.

However, this was later shown to be based on faulty cell tower analysis.

During a previous bail hearing, Ciaran Shiels of Madden and Finucane, who defended McClurkin and McConnell, questioned why there was no CCTV footage of this, given the area is close to a peaceline and with high value businesses operating extensive security camera coverage.

In reality, Farset was never used as a base by the gang, who instead dismantled the cash machines in a rural area well away from potential witnesses and security cameras.

Only £160,000 was ever seized by the authorities.

The rest of the estimated £2m in stolen cash has never been recovered.

So emboldened were the gang that they were carrying out ‘double dunter’ robberies, stealing two cash machines in the one night.

During one such raid in April 2019, a member of the public phoned the PSNI to alert them of a raid in Ballymena.

A police patrol car was sent to the scene while eye-witnesses watched the gang rip out two cash machines from the wall of a Tesco in the town.

The machines were loaded onto the back of a pick-up truck and a digger set on fire.

The patrol car arrived just as the robbers made off in the direction of Crebilly Road.

This all occurred just after 3am, with the roads almost deserted.

Despite police arriving at the scene the gang escaped.

They abandoned the vehicle and made off across fields, as officers watched on.

One of the gang even dropped his trousers and ‘mooned’ at police.

Following criticism, the PSNI said at the time it was tied to a policy of observing the speed limit unless officers believed lives were at risk.

Given the empty roads and the fact this was a purely financial crime, there was deemed to be no risk to life.

The gang would monitor the machines, noting the days and times when they were refilled with cash and targeting them hours later.

Some raids occurred on holiday weekends when they knew extra cash was loaded into the ATMs by banks.

As well as Antrim and Ballymena, the gang was behind the theft of an ATM at a Spar on Templepatrick Road in Ballyclare; one at a Tesco in Crumlin, and a Danske Bank ATM on Mallusk Road in Newtownabbey.

Cash machines stolen from Brook Street in Ahoghill, Market Square in Bushmills, and a garage at Nutts Corner were also linked to the gang.

The thieves believed they had mastered how to carry out the perfect high value/low risk crime.

In the end they were said to have gotten too confident, carrying out raids in increasingly risky locations before they were eventually apprehended.

Despite the huge sums involved, prosecutors were limited when it came to identifying offences serious enough to charge the thieves with.

No weapons were used and they never entered premises or threatened staff, hence there was no aggravated or armed element to the offences.

This was reflected in the relatively light sentences handed down this week.

While the gang liked to portray themselves as Robin Hood style characters, stealing from banks and supermarkets, the crime spree was not victimless.

As the number of robberies increased, shop keepers in rural areas were having their ATMs removed rather than risk being the next victim of a raid.

This left already isolated communities without any access to cash.

Shops targeted suffered such severe damage that they had to close down for repairs.

And then there was the sever inconvenience caused to the owners of the expensive plant machinery stolen and later torched.

The gang’s success was noted among other criminals, who started carrying out copycat raids.

A number of people are still before the courts charged with ATM robberies.

While the raids have slowed down as a result of improved security measures installed by banks, they are still occurring, with over a dozen carried out last year.

Belfast Telegraph