Antiques traders in Portobello Market have been praised by police for their help in catching a vicious gang who have now been jailed for a string of terrifying robberies netting jewellery worth nearly £250,000.
The four thugs were sentenced at Southwark Crown Court on Friday, August 23, having previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery at earlier hearings for the horrific attacks between October 2012 and February 2013.
The victims, aged between 50 and 70, were singled out by the men who scoured the market for stalls selling the most lucrative goods, before meticulously tracking traders to their homes. Wearing balaclavas or masks, they then attacked their victims as they set off from home to trade at the market, using various methods to overpower them, such as cable ties, incapacity spray or by physically trying to choke them.
On Saturday, October 13, 2012, two traders - a husband and wife in their 50s from East Sussex - were targeted as they packed up their car to travel to the market. The trader's husband was grabbed violently around the neck, with what is described as a 'military choke', before making off with jewellery worth £200,000.
On Saturday, December 1, 2012, a 63-year-old man left his home in Islington and was attacked by a masked man who sprayed a canister of unknown gas/liquid into his face. He fell to the ground while a second masked man grabbed his throat, making off with a bag containing cash, jewellery and antiques to the value of £31,500. A trader was targeted at Hatton Garden on January 29 this year. The victim, normally based at Portobello, was attacked by a CS spray in his face and silver cutlery worth £9000 was taken.
But the gang were caught on February 23, when officers from the Met's London Crime Squad arrested the gang as they set out to force entry into a block of flats in St John's Wood, north-west London - home to a 67-year-old female trader. They were wearing balaclavas and had large cable ties ready for use. Polish nationals Adam Stefanowicz, 28, Jan Kowal, 52, and Ireneuusz Szawkalo, 45, were jailed for eight years each, while Mirusz Golait, 39, received a three-year sentence.
One of the East Sussex victims said: "Since the robbery I have suffered flashbacks on numerous occasions and I have found it hard to sleep. I have constantly been looking over my shoulder, fearful of another attack."
Investigating officer DCI Lee Hill told ATG that none of the jewellery had been recovered as yet and he feared that such items would have been disposed of quickly after the robberies.
He added that strong intelligence information was vital in the arrest, and much of this had come from the traders. "They have come forward and assisted my team throughout and without their support it would have made our job very difficult, so it is important this is recognised.
"There was certainly a worrying level of violence and had this gang been allowed to continue I am quite certain they would have seriously hurt someone."
DCI Hill said that although such robberies involving people being followed home were not unknown - his team had investigated incidents when high-profile victims such as Bernie Ecclestone had been tracked from restaurants - he thought it was the first time jewellers had been targeted in this way.