Ringleaders arrested after recruiting children to steal more than $2 million of cigarettes and cash

Eastern Region Crime Squad detectives have today arrested four adults who allegedly orchestrated a network of child offenders to steal over $2 million worth of cigarettes and cash from service stations and supermarkets across Melbourne.

Investigators will allege two 19-year-old men recruited more than 20 children aged between 12 and 17 to carry out over 140 cigarette burglaries and armed robberies across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs since the start of this year.

These burglaries and armed robberies occurred at service stations, supermarkets, and tobacconists in suburbs including Blackburn, Balwyn, Boroondara, Burwood, Clayton, Camberwell, Doncaster East, Hawthorn, Lilydale, Oakleigh, and Somerville.

Police will allege the two 19-year-old men would provide children with stolen vehicles and specific locations to carry out the burglaries and steal cigarettes. It’s alleged the two men, who have known links to youth gangs, would pay the children a couple of hundred dollars cash in return for the stolen cigarettes.

The cigarettes would then allegedly be on-sold to two cigarette vendors – a 33-year-old man and a 53-year-old man – with businesses in Silvan, Burwood, and Cremorne.

Sixteen early morning warrants executed earlier today led to the arrest of these four men, as well as three other adults aged 19, 19, 18 and a 15-year-old boy. Two of the men and the 15-year-old boy have previously been arrested in connection to cigarette burglaries, however their arrests today relate to an aggravated home invasion in Bulleen where they allegedly forced entry to a home while armed with knives.

The other 19-year-old was arrested in respect to weapons related charges.

Before today, police had already made 38 arrests in relation to the 140 cigarette burglaries committed since the start of the year – 37 of which related to children under the age of 18. These people were charged with more than 270 offences.

The investigation into the alleged ring leaders has been running since February this year.

A summary of the four key arrests from today is as follows:

• A 19-year-old Burwood man and 19-year-old Ferntree Gully man were both arrested and expected to be charged with armed robbery, burglary, theft of motor vehicle and other charges. Both men are currently being interviewed by police. Police will allege these two individuals were the main orchestrators behind this offending.

• A 33-year-old Burwood man and a 53-year-old Silvan man were also both arrested and expected to be charged with handling stolen goods. Both men are also currently being interviewed by police. Police will allege these men were aware of the origins of these cigarettes and on sold them for a profit.

Among the items seized today were:

• Significant amount of cigarettes, tobacco and vapes.

• $243,000 cash from the residential address of the 33-year-old Burwood man.

• Over 200 cannabis plants.

• Luxury items suspected of being proceeds of crime, including designer handbags and shoes.

• Weapons including a machete, sword, imitation firearm, nunchakus, extendable metal baton, knuckle dusters and a hunting knife.

Police have observed a sharp increase in cigarette burglaries across Melbourne this year, with around 80% of those arrested for these crimes under the age of 18.

Police intelligence also indicates more than 40% of child offenders arrested in connection to cigarette burglaries were already known to police as part of Operation Trinity, due to their involvement in committing aggravated burglaries and car thefts.

Most recent cigarette burglaries have seen closed service stations, supermarkets and tobacconists targeted, however armed robberies targeting cigarettes while stores are open have also increased.

During the investigation, police have maintained regular communication with retail businesses across Melbourne to provide support to store owners and employees, in addition to high visibility patrols.

Key incidents connected to today’s arrests include:

• On Wednesday 17 April, police arrested five children following a series of seven alleged armed robberies at small businesses across Melbourne’s east. The group allegedly stole up to $30,000 in cigarettes while several staff members were working at the time.

• On Monday 20 May, police arrested two 15-year-old boys following an alleged burglary at a service station in Braeside. They allegedly stole up cigarettes valued at $8,000.

Quotes attributable to Acting Inspector Dale Maxwell – Eastern Region Regional Crime Advisor

“As part of this investigation, police have identified a sophisticated network of child offenders carrying out serious and violent crimes on behalf of adults with known youth gang links.

“Concerningly, a significant proportion of these children were already known to Victoria Police for sneaking into homes and stealing cars to joyride across the city.

“Police will allege that for as little as a couple of hundred dollars, these children have been enticed into stealing millions of dollars of cigarettes and cash from service stations, supermarkets, and tobacconists.

“Children as young as 12 have allegedly been recruited by adults’ intent on lining their own pockets without getting their hands dirty.

“These adults are intentionally preying on youth to offend on their behalf in the misguided hope they won’t be linked to the offending while they profit substantially.

“The results today show that police are committed to identifying and charging those directly responsible for the planning, co-ordination and execution of these crimes, not just those committing the offences in store.”

/Public Release. View in full here.