A rogue scrap metal dealer, who ran a "no questions asked" business, paid cash for stolen bronze memorial plaques heartless thieves swiped from five cemeteries, a jury were told today.
Over 723 plaques were stolen overnight from Croydon, Beckenham, Tonbridge & Malling, West Norwood and Putney Vale cemeteries and evidence of all of them were discovered during a police operation, which targeted DSM scrap yard.
It's boss, Joseph Collier, 72, of Woodhall Drive, Southwark cut the £75 plaques into tiny unidentifiable pieces and also bought an £1800 bronze sacred heart of Jesus statue stolen from a grave in Putney Vale, Croydon Crown Court was told.
During the police raid, which was the culmination of 'Operation Ferris', officers also seized a Thai bronze dragon statue, stolen from a front garden in Teddington, and Collier is also accused of trying to buy eight reels of copper belonging to UK Power Networks.
"They included memorial plaques from 2010, 2011 and 2012," explained prosecutor Mr. James Lofthouse. "These were not old, unwanted, unvisited memorials.
"Some had been recently visited and could not be said to be scrap metal and Mr. Collier would have known this as well.
"Various memorial plaques were pieced back together and shown to staff at the cemeteries and in all five instances they identified them."
The first cemetery targeted by thieves was Croydon in September, 2011. "Staff reported the theft of a large amount of memorial plaques from their garden.
"They are all four inches by three inches and are secured to the ground by a twelve-inch metal spike and sixty-six were stolen."
Over 200 were then stolen from Beckenham, 148 from Tonbridge & Malling, 300 from West Norwood and 9 from Putney Vale.
DSM, of Bensham Lane, Croydon was searched on March 14, 2012 and Collier arrested on the premises.
"Officers found a number of plaques and fragments of plaques and Mr. Collier ran the business, he decided what to pay and accepted metal on a no questions asked basis," added Mr. Lofthouse.
"In several bags in the yard were found these bronze memorial plaques, with the names of the deceased, details and personal messages on them.
"some had been cut into small pieces rendering them unrecognisable. You would not have known what they were."
A member of Collier's staff was operating a cutting machine in one of the buildings.
"There was a memorial plaque with the corner cut off on the machine and a basket beside it containing plaques already chopped up.
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Beckenham Cemetery had coated their plaques in identifiable 'Smart Water' and traces of it were found on the cutting machine.
The jury were also shown undercover surveillance footage of Collier buying the stolen items and handing over cash.
He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of possessing criminal property on May 14, 2012, namely the memorial plaques and sacred heart statue and the ornamental dragon figure.
Collier also denies disguising criminal property, namely a quantity of memorial plaques, on the same date and attempting to receive stolen goods, namely eight reels of copper on March 27, last year.