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Flying Squad detectives gave the inside track on how they caught a previously “untouchable” syndicate of foreign criminals by tracing all of the 1,007 taxis in the area one by one.
The four flew into the UK from Italy to carry out a breathtaking raid on F1 heiress and socialite Tamara Ecclestone’s mansion in Kensington.
Detective Constable Andrew Payne said the “meticulous” gang ensured they “were no more than shadows and ghosts as they moved around London”.
And they picked targets that were “impossible on paper” like a plot out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Jugoslav Jovanovic, 24, Alessandro Maltese, 45, and Alessandro Donati, 44, also burgled the west London home of former Chelsea FC midfielder and manager Frank Lampard and his television presenter wife Christine, getting away with £50,000 of watches and jewellery during a 13-day crime spree in December 2019.
Almost £1m of watches and cash was taken from the property of late Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, which had been turned into a shrine by his family after he died in a helicopter crash in 2018.
A £500 bottle of Cristal champagne was opened and swigged by the gang as they smashed open his safe.
Jovanovic was jailed for 11 years on Monday by Judge Martin Edmunds QC at Isleworth Crown Court, while Maltese and Donati were handed sentences of eight years and nine months.
Ms Ecclestone, the 37-year-old daughter of ex-Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, was on holiday in Lapland with her husband, art gallery owner Jay Rutland, their daughter and dog when four men ransacked their 55-bedroom home.
Socialite Ecclestone in a victim impact statement said she was left scared and “obsessing over security” after her Kensington mansion was ransacked.
Kensington Palace Gardens - the most expensive street in the world - has an armed-guard presence and is home to several embassies as well as Roman Abramovic and the Sultan of Brunei.
After throwing a fire extinguisher at a security guard who intervened, the burglars fled with 400 items, dropping two unregistered Nokia “burner” mobile phones and screwdrivers.
They were then seen fleeing through the rear garden past a child’s large playhouse palace in a 15-second grainy black and white CCTV clip.
The group flagged down an unknown London black cab in Kensington Church Streetat 10pm, an hour before the alarm was raised.
DC Payne said searching for that vehicle was “like looking for a needle in a haystack” after a minimum of 1,007 black London taxis were known to be in the vicinity of Kensington.
He said: “We had to trace and eliminate every one of them.
“We got to 1,004 on that list when breakthrough came on day 28 and a taxi driver confirm it was he who picked up the group.”
The cabbie said he had driven them to the London Hilton on Park Lane. But there they were seen on CCTV flagging down yet another black London taxi.
Police who analysed 2,000 hours of footage in 20-hour shifts managed to trace the second vehicle through the streets of London and it was seen to stop outside London Victoria Station.
Jovanovic, and Italian nationals Maltese and Donati stopped for a coffee and pastry from a kiosk but despite their mammoth haul, Maltese was still greedy.
DC Payne added: “The most bizarre feature is Alessandro Maltese was seen shoplifting on CCTV stealing a packet of chewing gum.
“It was a slight of the hand and you’d blink and miss it.
“The group couldn’t help themselves, they wanted it all.”
Jovanovic went on a shopping spree at Harrods using the stolen cash.
He celebrated the second raid on Mr Srivaddhanaprabha’s home by organising a lavish £760 dinner at Zuma, the luxury Knightsbridge sushi restaurant.
All three fled the country in the days after the raids along with Alfredo Lindley, 40, who is thought to be in the Serbian capital Belgrade and is still wanted by police.
Maltese and Donati flew from Gatwick to Milan on December 16.
Jovanovic, who bleached his hair blond, was seen arriving at London City Airport wearing a Rolex watch on December 18.
He, Maltese and Donati were extradited back to UK and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to burgle at Isleworth Crown Court.
DC Payne added: “Once they were welcomed back into the UK, all three told me they were amazed to even be caught.
“They praised us for having found them. They believed they were untouchable.”
He said their crimes were “comparable to what you would see in a Hollywood movie”, but added: “Unfortunately, this was real life involving real victims who suffered greatly. “
Police said the gang had carried out surveillance and dry runs in the days prior to the Ecclestone burglary.
They used unregistered Oyster cards to travel between London Victoria and St Mary Cray in Orpington and once in the capital paid for taxis in cash.
DC Payne said: “We are aware certainly of other planned crimes and victims based in the UK. We’re not going into who those high-profile people may be but it’s more than one.
“They were also suspected of similar offences against high-profile targets in Europe.”
Because none of the suspects has been interviewed by British police under extradition rules, officers says they don’t know why the families of Eccleston, Lampard and Srivaddhanaprabha were targeted.
But asked if they might have interrogated the star’s Instagram and Twitter accounts for clues of when they might be away, DC Payne said: “A lot of people live their lives social media, it’s the world we live in. That may have been how they planned it we don’t know.
“Obviously the people they are targeting are of extreme wealth and the likelihood of hitting the jackpot is greatly higher than someone else.”
In a statement, Mr Srivaddhanaprabha’s family said: “Our late father’s residence was a place of reflection and to pray.
“We felt it was the strongest connection to him as he spent his last night there before his death.
“Since the burglary, our sacred and special connection has been damaged and violated beyond repair.
“The gang have not only broken into safes, they opened a £500 bottle of Cristal champagne and drank it whilst raiding it.”
DC Payne said: “Almost all of the stolen property has never been seen again.
“It has been successfully laundered, concealed and disguised. Effectively it is buried treasure somewhere globally. We just don’t know where it is.”
Police in America, Belgium, Croatia, France, the Netherlands Sweden, Romania, Serbia and Italy as well as 50 Metropolitan Police units and the CPS were involved in the investigation or attempting to traced the £26m haul.
Police are determined to get Lindley extradited back to the UK.
Italian authorities accuse him of raiding the home of Patrick Vieira, now Crystal Palace manager, in 2009.
He is known to use 19 alias names including Daniel Vukovic, Ljubomir Radosavljevic and Ljubomir Romanov.
Under the Ljubomir Romanov name, Serbian-born Lindley appeared before a court in Belgrade in August facing extradition to the UK.
But authorities refused the case brought by the Republic of Serbia’s specialised organised crime department and Lindley is still believed to be in the city.
Detective Inspector Ben Mahoney, who also worked on the case, added: “We make no apology for tackling these organised criminal networks.
“They were bold and daring but didn’t account for detectives who wanted to hunt them down.
“Once you read the victim impact statements in this case, you take it personally.”
Jovanovic, Maltese, and Donati admitted a plot to carry out the three raids in west London over 13 days in December 2019.
The trio pleaded guilty to conspiracy to burgle between November 29 and December 18 2019 after being extradited from Italy.
Jovanovic also admitted conspiracy to commit money laundering between December 10 2019 and January 31 last year.
Sentencing them judge Martin Edmunds QC said the gang had chosen their targets because of the "celebrity of their occupants", adding: "The distress cause by the burglary of a home to householders who may be well-known or wealthy is not less than that caused to those in different circumstances."
He said: "In November and December 2019, each of you flew into this country to take your parts in targeting the west London homes of well-known and wealthy people.
"The fact that each burglary was accomplished despite the precautions of the householders, that so much was stolen, and then, it is to be inferred, removed from the country and not recovered, speaks to the overall organisation, planning and criminal determination, together with a willingness to take chances.
"You did so in the hope of substantial gain for yourselves but regardless of the loss to those people, not only of objects of financial value but of objects of deep personal significance and of the sense of safety and security that anyone is entitled to feel in their own home."