Two days before the smash that claimed the life of Rocky Broadway, DCI Aidan Donohoe had formally signed off an operation investigating the organised crime boss for whom the four occupants of the stolen Mercedes were working when they crashed.
Last week, Mr Donohoe was one of half a dozen police officers in court to watch gang leader James ‘Jimmy’ Sheen sent down for more than 17 years for his part in a year-long crime wave targeting ATMs, a Newmarket horseracing museum and high-value tractors and construction vehicles.
“It seems like the end of a really significant journey," he said.
“When we initially took on the investigation we were speculating how we would secure any convictions or what outcome we could get.
“But piece by piece as we’ve built that investigation over the last two years we’ve found more evidence as we’ve gone on.”
The gang's 12-month reign of terror came to a tragic end on June 10, 2020.
Jimmy Loveridge, 30, was behind the wheel of a stolen Mercedes when he cut a bend on the B4011 near Boarstall and lost control of the high-powered car.
In the aftermath of the devastating crash, Rocky Broadway lay dead. Loveridge, together with fellow thieves Paul Smith and Albert Johnson were seriously injured.
They all were later jailed for crimes ranging from causing death by dangerous driving to conspiracy to burgle an antiques house in Tetsworth, where they were headed that night.
By then James ‘Jimmy’ Sheen was already back behind bars. He had been arrested on June 4 in connection with the large-scale theft of tractors and construction site machinery then recalled to prison on licence – having been jailed for 12 years in 2010 for a drive-by shooting in which two innocents were caught in the crossfire.
“Our Force Intelligence Bureau had been researching some intelligence in respect of the activities of Jimmy Sheen and potentially some other people who were involved with him,” DCI Donohoe told the Oxford Mail.
“They began to understand the structure of his organisation and recognised what they were dealing with was actually an organised crime group.
“Bit by bit began to seize some evidence that indicated they were extremely active in acquisitive crime and at the point there they felt there was enough there for an overt police investigation to be launched they approached me at Cherwell and West, where I was then the detective inspector.
“Two days before that fatal road traffic collision we had a meeting and I agreed we would take on that investigation.”
The remaining members of the gang were placed under surveillance. A police reconnaissance drone actually picked up the moment Loveridge, Smith, Boswell and Johnson set off from Manor Park, the caravan site near Kidlington where Sheen owned several plots and where the gang was latterly based, just hours before the fatal crash.
In the wake of the crash, detectives swooped on Manor Park – discovering a treasure trove of evidence including mobile phones.
But there was no smoking gun. This was dogged detective work.
A team of five detectives and a civilian analyst spent months sifting through the evidence from mobile phones, CCTV and DNA.
READ MORE: The crimes of Jimmy Sheen and his gang
The gang was forensically aware. They wore home-made ski-masks. Their cars, stolen from different parts of the country, were driven on false plates – with the registration plates often changed at least once over the evening during their night time raids in order to avoid detection. Their phones were left at home on the nights they set off across the Home Counties to ensure that, if the police got hold of their phones, they couldn’t be used to prove their location.
Their thefts were planned – professional, even. Data from gang leader Sheen’s phone showed that on May 4, 2020, four days before he, trusted lieutenant David Riley and experienced muscle Loveridge smashed their way into the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket, he was searching the net for information about the museum and the trophies.
The gang was in-and-out within three minutes, pointing to what prosecutor Barry McElduff described to Oxford Crown Court as a ‘professional and sophisticated operation’.
And in the wake of the heist, the burglars used their phones to check the web for news about the break-in as well as to research gold and silver hallmarks of the type found on the trophies they had just stolen.
Whilst professional, the gang were perhaps not careful enough.
They had a habit of sending each other voice messages on WhatsApp, which were later recovered by the police when the gang members’ handsets were seized.
In one, Jimmy Loveridge talked about getting chased by Hampshire Police in Horndean after an aborted attempt to steal a Mitsubishi 4x4 overnight on May 13 and 14, 2020.
“Got bad chased again last night. Gavvers [slang for police] on us mate, ended up writing a BM [BMW], writing a car off,” he told pal Danny O’Loughlin.
He added of the ATMs: “Them poxy machines again mush. They’re not worth touching, honest to God they’re not.”
Worldly-wise O’Loughlin gave Loveridge a poor assessment of his chances in the Home Counties. “You’re up the wrong part of the country as well, mush. We’ve ripped it to pieces for the last 20 years. They’re [the police] on it up there, they got proper squads.”
The gangsters may not – generally – have taken their phones with them when they went off on their expeditions to blow-up or drag out ATMs.
But the GPS data from them showed the distinctive pattern on the nights of the raids; travelling from different parts of the south east to Sheen’s Oxford base before the phones went ‘dark’ until the next morning.
Between June and early August 2019, the gang also had the bad fortune to use a blue Audi getaway car that, unknown to them, had a SIM card fitted enabling police to later track its movements.
With one exception in mid-July, the stolen Audi was only used on nights when offences were committed and appeared to be stored in ‘within easy reach’ of Sheen’s home in Warren Crescent, Headington. The car was dumped in farmland west of Reading and torched after four unsuccessful gas attacks in Kent, Buckinghamshire and Surrey in early August.
DCI Donohoe said he was surprised not so much by the scale of the gang’s crimes but the variety.
“It’s not often you’ll see an OCG that will have so much variation in the sort of crime they’ll do," he said.
“To go from gas attacks on cash machines to ram raids then switch almost seamlessly in a matter of weeks to stealing tractors and doing heritage burglaries like the one at Newmarket shows they’re willing to turn their hand to any sort of criminality that they thought would bring profit.
“You could say they’re audacious, but that almost sounds complimentary.
“I think they’re incredibly reckless. They’ve got a cynical view of the world and I think their view is that they can do what they like. If something’s there for them to take and generate a profit for themselves out of it then they’ll do that.
“I think it’s an insult to anyone who’s ever held a job or earned their money honestly. For them, crime is a lifestyle and a form of employment and they’re not interested in doing anything else but crime.”
He praised the work of his officers, led by DS Lorna Briggs. He said the hefty jail time - a combined total of 74 years' imprisonment - was a ‘testament’ to the hard work of the detective sergeant and her team.
Seven officers or civilian investigators, including DCI Donohoe and DS Briggs were picked out by name by Judge Michael Gledhill QC for commendation on Friday. He said: “[They] have done their work professionally and to the best of their abilities and to that extent deserve the public’s commendation.”
This story was written by Tom Seaward. He joined the team in 2021 as Oxfordshire's court and crime reporter.
To get in touch with him email: Tom.Seaward@newsquest.co.uk
Follow him on Twitter: @t_seaward