The six men stole up to £1.5m over a six-year period, committing offences in Great Sutton , Neston, St Helens, Liverpool and Warrington, using sledgehammers to force their way into premises, usually while staff were preparing to open for business or were cashing up at the end of the day.
They would also use the element of surprise to drop in through the roof, having removed roof tiles.
Hope Farm Post Office in Great Sutton and Natwest bank in Neston were among those targeted in 2013 and 2014.
Employees described the robberies as ‘terrifying’ with one victim saying she feared for her and her colleagues' lives when the men burst in. Some victims were man-handled and injured by the robbers and others were threatened while being ordered to provide access to the bank’s cash.
The six men were arrested in a co-ordinated strike at dawn in Liverpool on November 26 last year, following a joint investigation by Merseyside Police and Cheshire Constabulary.
Just two days earlier members of the gang had struck at a bank in Hull stealing a large amount of cash. After searches of homes in Aigburth and Toxteth, large amounts of cash, some drugs and CS gas were found and a Subaru Impreza was also seized.
All six men were charged and five pleaded guilty in January and February of this year. However Gary McNeill, 35, of Upper Pitt Street, Liverpool, denied any involvement in the robberies until his trial date approached and he changed his plea to guilty.
'I couldn't sleep or go out'
At the gang’s sentencing hearing at Liverpool Crown Court Judge David Aubrey QC read extracts from the personal statements of many of the victims and heard 999 calls that bank staff made to the police while the robberies were in progress.
A victim from one of the Neston bank robberies in 2013 said in her statement: “After the incident I started having panic attacks and couldn’t sleep.
"It was so bad that I needed sleeping tablets and beta blockers to deal with the stress. I wouldn’t go out at night and only went out if I had to during the day.
"On a number of occasions I had panic attacks when I saw anyone come near me wearing a hoodie. If there was ever a loud noise I would jump and panic. This continued and led to me having counselling. I wasn’t able to work for 12 months. I worked at the bank all my life and loved it but after this incident I hated my job. I will never fully get over it.”
Merseyside Police Detective Inspector Mike Dalton who led the joint investigation called on the public to share any information they had about people involved in robberies.
'Sentences reflect severity of crimes'
He said: “This gang enjoyed a criminal lifestyle on the back of the misery of many decent, hard-working people who were simply doing their job when these men burst in and changed their lives forever.
“It is hugely satisfying to see them jailed today following our investigation with Cheshire Police and I hope the victims feel reassured that they are now behind bars."
Detective Sergeant Rob Grantham from Cheshire Constabulary said: “The sentences handed down by the court reflect the severity of the crimes and the impact on the victims.
"The gang targeted a number of financial institutions across three force areas, forcing entry mainly at opening or closing times and stealing significant quantities of cash. The gang was subsequently linked to four offences in Cheshire via forensic enquiries.
“This was a complex and lengthy investigation by a dedicated team of officers from Cheshire Police working alongside colleagues in Merseyside Police.
The sentences are as follows:
Ian John Stewart, aged 49, formerly of Stonegate Drive, Toxteth – 13 years
Kieron Anthony Whittle, aged 35, of Little Parkfield Road, Aigburth – 15 years
John Paul Stewart, aged 30, of Waverley Road, Aigburth – 13 years, six months
Alan Robert Lea, aged 38, of Verney Crescent, Toxteth – 16 years
Shaun James McDonald, aged 38, of Charleston Road, Toxteth – 13 years, four months
Gary Thomas McNeill, aged 36, formerly of Upper Pitt Street, Liverpool city centre – 12 years, six months.