A discarded cigarette butt helped link a thief to the theft of lead from Kingham church’s roof.

Madalin Prundaru, who was handed a community order sentence for his involvement in a gang that targeted 40 different churches across the country, carried out the May 2016 theft with his cousin Gigi Prundaru.

Analysis of the gang mastermind Gigi’s mobile phone showed it had been used to carry out searches on the Kingham church, police said.

The day before the theft was discovered, a route plan from London to the Oxfordshire village was mapped out on the mobile.

The theft was one of scores of thefts painstakingly investigated by officers from Lincolnshire Police, who launched a probe nicknamed Operation Dastardly following the string of offending.

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As well as the Kingham theft, Gigi Prundaru admitted taking theft from St Mary’s in Souldern and All Saints in Middleton Cheney.

The cost of repairs to the latter church was expected to be more than £125,000.

The following months, in June and July, the gang was linked to thefts at St Michaels and All Angels in Lambourn, at Chadlington’s St Nicholas, and from St Giles, Wigginton, near Banbury.

In the early hours of September 9, 2016, a vehicle was found abandoned in a ditch near the scene of what the police described as a ‘theft in progress’ at St Mary’s Church, Lyford, north of Wantage.

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Forensic evidence from the vehicle linked it to a third defendant, Laurentiu Rebeca.

By the time of the raid on Lyford’s church in September, police had already pulled over the gang’s getaway car.

In late August, a churchwarden in Walcot, near Sleaford in Lincolnshire, spotted the three defendants trying to remove lead from the church.

He and his wife tailed the defendants’ car towards the A1, tracking the vehicle until police arrived.

Witney Gazette: Souldern's church was among those targeted by the thieves Picture: Lincolnshire PoliceSouldern's church was among those targeted by the thieves Picture: Lincolnshire Police (Image: Lincolnshire Police)

Lead sheets found in the vehicle contained a ‘Smartwater’ chemical – an invisible substance used to mark high-value items – showing the metal was from another church.

Gigi Prundaru, 34, admitted 31 offences and was jailed for six years and a month. Laurentiu Rebeca, 27, pleaded guilty to 24 offences and received four years and 10 months’ imprisonment.

Madalin Prundaru, 26, claimed to have been exploited by his cousin Gigi, alleging that he was recruited to do building work at unknown locations across the UK at night.

Jurors at Lincoln Crown Court found him guilty of 18 counts of theft. He received a two year community order.

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Investigating officer DC Andrew Woodcock of Lincolnshire Police said: “It would be a mistake to consider these offences as victimless because it’s quite the opposite.

“Churches and religious sites hold a great deal of meaning for many people, as well as providing a hub for the community, and these crimes have had a negative impact on many people across the country.

“Thankfully, now, we have held to account a group of people who were so callously willing to commit these offences without a thought for others.”