Collection of coins covered with dirt
Coins seized by Cheshire Police working with Historic England © Cheshire Police
Coins seized by Cheshire Police working with Historic England © Cheshire Police

Five Metal Detectorists Sentenced in Biggest Operation of its Type

In the largest investigation of its type, a Tameside nighthawking gang has been sentenced after admitting unlawful metal detecting at Beeston Castle in Cheshire and Roche Abbey in South Yorkshire.

Five men appeared at Chester Magistrates on 7 May 2021 for sentencing following a lengthy and complex investigation by Cheshire Police, Historic England and South Yorkshire police.

All five were fined and handed a five-year Criminal Behaviour Order which prevents them from entering any historic site in England and Wales - a first for Cheshire, and the North West.

The defendants

  • Curtis Barlow, 32, of The Quadrant, Droylsden, admitted taking coins and metal artefacts from Roche Abbey between 13 and 15 December 2019. He was handed a £572 fine along with a £85 surcharge.
  • Gary Flanagan, 33, of Winton Avenue, Audenshaw, admitted taking coins and artefacts from Beeston Castle and Roche Abbey between 13 and 30 December 2019. He was handed a £1,100 fine plus a £85 surcharge.
  • Daniel James Lloyd, 33, of Beech Avenue, Droylsden, admitted taking Bronze Age axe heads, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019. He was handed a £600 fine plus a £85 surcharge.
  • John Andrew Lorne, 29, of Sunnyside Road, Droylsden, admitted taking Bronze Age axe heads, coins and other artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019, and removing coins and metal artefacts from Roche Abbey between 28 and 30 December 2019. He was ordered to pay £1,760 plus a £85 surcharge.
  • Francis James Ward, 32, of Dingle Drive, Droylsden, admitted taking Bronze Age axe heads, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019. He was ordered to pay £1,430 court costs plus a £85 surcharge.

Unlawful nighthawking activity

The men’s illegal activities were unearthed when a number of holes were found in the grounds of Beeston Castle and Roche Abbey, both are in the care of English Heritage, sparking an investigation in December 2019.

Further information led them to Ward and on New Year’s Eve, officers from Cheshire executed a warrant at his Drolysden home. This led officers to Lorne and his home was searched during a warrant at which a number of items were seized. Both men were arrested and interviewed while mobile phones and other devices were seized.

When analysing their phones officers discovered both men were part of a nighthawking WhatsApp group, leading to the arrest of Lloyd, Barlow and Flanagan.

Their WhatsApp group clearly showed what they were up to and our subsequent forensic investigations alongside South Yorkshire police put them at the locations where the incidents had occurred. What followed was a number of months of carefully identifying and cataloguing the historic artefacts they had taken with the help of Historic England experts. The evidence we put together was such that they pleaded guilty at their first hearing.

PC Ashley Tether who led the investigation Cheshire Police Rural Crime Team

The five men are now barred from going anywhere near historic sites in England and Wales and if people see them not adhering to this restriction, they should report it to police on 101. Breaching such orders can result in a prison sentence.

A decade ago, we did not have the skills and techniques necessary to investigate this form of criminal behaviour. We have now developed the expertise, capability and partnerships to identify and prosecute the small criminal minority of nighthawks. The overwhelming majority of metal detectorists comply with the legislation and codes of practice.

When thieves steal artefacts from a protected archaeological site, they are stealing from all of us and damaging something which is often irreplaceable.

Mark Harrison, Head of Heritage Crime Strategy Historic England

Illegal metal detecting robs us of our past, and whilst this prosecution is good news, sadly the damage incidents like these cause can never be repaired. Beeston Castle and Roche Abbey are protected in law because of the lessons we can learn from their unique archaeology. Unlawful attacks like these can cause such insight to be lost forever.

Win Scutt, Properties Curator English Heritage

English Heritage said they are grateful to Cheshire Police and Historic England for their persistent and innovative approach to investigating this case, and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Key advances to combat heritage crime over the past decade include:

Working in partnership with the Police

The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the National Police Chiefs Council, Crown Prosecution Service and Historic England in 2011. It was a first step to a commitment to prevent, investigate and enforce offences relating to historic buildings and sites and the historic environment.

The introduction of Heritage Crime Liaison Officers in each police service in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in 2011.

Training for over 10,000 heritage and law enforcement professionals and community volunteers and the introduction of a Heritage Crime Module for Volunteer Police Cadets.

ARCH - Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage was launched in 2011. There are now over 200 agencies, bodies and organisations that support the ARCH network. They include: faith, security, charitable and community groups committed to the protection and conservation of our shared cultural heritage.

Community engagement

Heritage Watch was developed by Historic England, National Police Chiefs Council, Cheshire Constabulary and Cheshire West and Chester Council in 2011. As part of the national Neighbourhood Watch Network, the scheme gives owners and managers of protected buildings and sites the knowledge and confidence to prevent crime and to report and record crime and suspicious activity.

In November 2020, the first Heritage Watch Training Workshop was delivered in partnership with the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD), Essex Police, Wiltshire Police, Portable Antiquities Scheme and Historic England. The training arms detectorists with the knowledge of how to report crime and suspicious behaviour using the 101/999 systems. It is envisaged that these workshops will be delivered across the country.

Sentencing

The Sentencing Council announced new sentencing guidelines in 2019 for offenders who cause damage to heritage sites, historic buildings and cultural property.

Analytics

A Historic England grant to help develop a national research and analytical function hosted by Kent Police and OPAL - a 'national intelligence unit' focused on serious organised 'acquisitive' crime (SOAC), which will in time, provide the analysis necessary to identify current and emerging crime threats in the historic environment.

Also of interest

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