New Artful Dodgers pocketing fortune by picking on top shops

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2007, 12:00am


Life in London is never too far from some sort of grimy Dickensian analogy, especially at Christmas time, and particularly when it concerns crime.

Dickens' most fabled criminal was Fagin, that wily rat-like mentor (known as a kidsman) who schooled young ragamuffins in pickpocketing and theft while giving them food and shelter.

Now, it seems, London has a modern-day Fagin running an apparently 30-strong gang of brash young thieves who steal designer clothes, handbags, glasses and jewellery. Their name, police believe, is the Fagin's Kitchen Crew.

Such analogies with Oliver Twist may seem odd. Fagin's boys lived in the rookery, or slum, that was St Giles - a long-gone den of vice and poverty stretching from Covent Garden to Clerkenwell, a kilometre east. And the Artful Dodger practised the deft art of pickpocketing, stealing watches, wallets, and silk handkerchiefs in Dickensian London. They were also a work of fiction.

There's nothing fictional about the modern-day gang robbing high-end shops in upmarket areas of up to GBP400,000 (HK$6.24 million) in goods at a time. There's nothing particularly deft, either, about their modus operandi: tools of the trade include a stolen scooter capable of riding up and down pavements along back streets and alleys to avoid CCTV, and that most sensitive of criminal tools, the sledgehammer.

The gang, or affiliated gangs, thought to hail from the modern-day rookeries that are the rundown estates in Islington, north London, have struck up to 60 times this year, always in the same way.

Four crooks, their features hidden by full-face helmets, whizz up to a designer store on two scooters in the small hours. Two crooks swing sledgehammers through the reinforced window and haul in goods worth thousands of pounds.

In seconds they are gone.

The raids are far from random. Some kids have backup 4x4s waiting, and the raids net only the most sought-after jewellery and designer accessories. Victims include Roger Vivier, De Beers, Gucci, Asprey, Mulberry, Avakian, Tiffany's, Tod's and Cartier - and raids usually coincide with the latest designs going on display.

So in keeping with style and trend are these ram raiders that fashion types have dubbed them the 'Glam Raiders', although police are sure the gang calls itself Fagin's Kitchen Crew and are gauging what to steal by analysing demand and prices on eBay.

Bags worth some GBP50,000 by Marc Jacobs, Chloe and Balenciaga were stolen from one store in St John's Wood in seconds. Another branch was hit three times in 10 days. In September, bags worth GBP10,000 went from Luella Bartley's new Mayfair store.

After Sonia Rykiel's store in high-profile Brook Street was glam-raided, losing goods worth tens of thousands of pounds, Gucci and other stores hired watchmen. Since losing jewellery worth GBP400,000, Asprey has 22mm of reinforced glass. Police say such thefts would end if stores used security grilles. But boutiques want shopfront displays to remain at all times.

Such 'crimes de luxe', as some call them, have been prompted by brands branching into costly accessories - or, in thief speak, small items readily accessible and easily disposed of, often over the Web. And many brands deliberately limit supply to create a waiting-list culture that ultimately boosts the price - and the likelihood of being glam-raided at 2.30am.

There are signs the gang's days are numbered. One gang member died in a chase following a foiled raid on Tiffany's last year, while five members were jailed afterwards. Police raids last week netted several youths and a 43-year-old man.