THEY declared their right to "rob the lords, sirs and ladies" when they featured in a BBC documentary and went on to do just that, pulling off the largest burglary in British history and stealing antiques worth an estimated £80 million.
The Johnson gang, part of a notorious traveller family who struck stately homes across the country, were jailed for up to 11 years each.
The five men, including a father and his two sons, used their home at a static caravan site to plan raids on at least seven stately homes, later storing priceless paintings, porcelain and antiques in an underground bunker in a friend's field.
While a number of items were recovered by police, the vast majority of treasures – worth tens of millions of pound – stolen from the Wiltshire mansion of Harry Hyams, the property tycoon, in the UK's biggest ever private house burglary, are still missing.
A court heard that the gang targeted wealthy homes across Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Worcestershire where they knew there would be "rich pickings" during a year-long spree. The men would stake out the country mansions, sometimes for weeks, pinpointing the best means of entry and escape.
Then they would strike – breaking in wearing balaclavas, scouring rooms and escaping in stolen cars within minutes leaving little or no trace. Other victims included Paddy McNally, the Formula One motor racing advertising tycoon, and Sir Philip Wroughton, the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire.
Those behind the raids were part of the Johnson family – an organised criminal gang which detectives say has plagued the south of England for 20 years.
Richard "Chad" Johnson, 33, and Daniel O'Loughlin, 32, were both jailed for 11 years; Michael Nicholls, 29, was given ten years; Albi Johnson, 25, was jailed for nine years; and 54-year-old Ricky Johnson was given eight years. Altogether the gang was jailed for 49 years.
They were all found guilty of conspiracy to commit burglary between 8 April, 2005 and 13 October, 2006 following a trial at Reading Crown Court.
They were sentenced in January but the case can be reported for the first time now following the conclusion of other cases against the family. Ricky Johnson is the father of Chad and Albi, and O'Loughlin is his nephew. Nicholls was the partner of his daughter, Faye.
The family were based at a static caravan park in Evesham, Worcestershire, where they plotted the high-value raids. A jury heard that some properties were burgled while the householders were inside and on one occasion two victims sat in their kitchen, unaware the raid was taking place.
In 2005 the family were featured in a BBC documentary, Summer With The Johnsons, which gave a unique insight into their attitudes and lifestyle.
While Ricky Johnson admitted he had done "an awful lot of robbing" in his life he claimed he had never burgled any country homes. He said: "If I feel the need when I have got to rob a stately home, I will do so. I will rob it and hope I don't get caught. But I will only rob your house if I feel the need and I have got to feed my children and nobody is helping me achieve my goal. I feel I have got the right to rob the lords, sirs and the ladies."
In court Paul Reid, prosecuting, said the gang were an "extensive and highly organised gang" who were "ruthless in their intention to acquire high-value property" from country houses.
They hit the home of Mr Hyams – Ramsbury Manor near Marlborough in Wiltshire – in February 2006. Mr Reid said: "This has been described as the most valuable domestic burglary ever committed in this country. The collection is described as priceless. There is a difficulty in putting a value on antiques and antiquities – some of them very precious and very rare – but it is tens of millions of pounds."
When police arrested the gang, they estimated the haul was worth 30 million. Sources in the art world say the figure is closer to 80 million.
Two months after the Ramsbury raid, detectives found an Aladdin's cave of treasures in an underground bunker at a field owned by an associate of the Johnsons near Stratford-upon-Avon.
Inside were a number of black bins containing straw and numerous pieces of porcelain stolen from the Hyams estate – about a third of the total haul. Some of the priceless antiques had been damaged. Among other targets was Warneford Place, the former home of James Bond author Ian Fleming, set in 1,000 acres in Sevenhampton near Swindon and owned by Mr McNally, who once dated the Duchess of York.
Sir Philip Wroughton and his wife had items worth 100,000 stolen when the gang burgled their country home in Chaddleworth, Berkshire, twice in 12 months.
Since the arrests in 2006, Thames Valley Police have seen a 90 per cent reduction in offences attributable to the group and across all areas there has been a dramatic decrease in country house burglaries, and cash machine and metal thefts.
Family with history of targeting elderly and vulnerable
THE Johnson clan was born of the union in the 1950s of Muriel "Millie" Slender of Cheltenham and Albert Johnson, a gypsy. Eight children were born – five boys and three girls – and following the death of Albert, Alan, who went by the name Jimmy, and Ricky, who had both spent years in care as children, headed the family.
While Jimmy was not part of the latest series of trials, he has a number of convictions. Ricky Johnson, meanwhile, was jailed for three years in 1997 for defrauding elderly people through a bogus building company called Christian Construction. After his conviction, he blamed Jesus for his crimes: "Christ works in mysterious ways and I follow His guiding voice."
The apple did not far fall from the tree: Chad, Ricky's son, was sentenced to 11 years for his part in the country house burglaries, including that of the Wiltshire mansion of the property tycoon Harry Hyams, pictured left. He is also serving a jail term for marrying a vulnerable woman 38 years his senior and stealing hundreds of thousands of pounds from her accounts.