Gangs who prey on the elderly are being targeted in a major police operation to protect pensioners.
Operation Bullent is tracking known groups of offenders who target vulnerable older people.
The officer heading up the operation, Chief Superintendent Alan Todd (right), vowed “no stone will be left unturned” in bringing those responsible for “these heinous crimes” before the courts.
Concern over attacks against the elderly intensified last week after the murder of Bertie Acheson (72) who died as he confronted an intruder in his Coleraine home.
And statistics from the Belfast Telegraph showed that last year more than 1,000 pensioners were victims of a burglary or robbery.
Of those incidents 58 were personal robberies where the victim was confronted in their own home by an intruder and attacked or threatened with violence.
Mr Todd insisted that it is only in a very small number of cases that a person is deliberately targeted because of their age. But he said officers are “relentlessly focused” on catching those responsible.
“There are people who commit burglaries and robberies and then stray into targeting the elderly. But there are clearly a number of groups and targeting the elderly is their preference.
“They will also be involved in other crimes and I really don’t mind what I lock them up for as long as I lock them up for something. It is about protective policing. If they are locked up it takes them off the streets and protects the older person,” said Mr Todd.
He added: “We are always putting people before the courts. I don’t care if it is dangerous driving, driving while disqualified, speeding, whatever it takes to put them back before the courts because when they are under lock and key they are not out committing crimes on the streets.
“If a particular offender is out from prison or has been re-released or we have the intelligence that they are working with another group of individuals, then we tend to put our resources into targeting that group.”
The justice system has been criticised for the perceived lenient treatment of offenders who target the elderly.
Mr Acheson’s brother Mervyn said he does not believe sentences handed down by courts in Northern Ireland act as a deterrent.
Chief Superintendent Todd admitted that “as a police officer we always want to lock the offender up for longer. But ultimately it is our job to try and prevent the crime in the first place, to make it harder for those people who commit those crimes.
“And if they do commit the crime then it is our job to create the likelihood that we will put them before the courts.”
“When we do catch people and charge them we follow that to the courts and make very strong representations as to why they should be remanded in custody pending trial.
“When they are not remanded in custody pending trial we look for very stringent bail conditions and we enforce those rigidly.”
Currently three offenders in the Newry area who have targeted older people were released on bail under strict conditions, the Chief Superintendent said.
“Their bail conditions include curfews and we do checks during the night and if they are not there we bring them back before the courts. Again, we might prefer if they were locked up, but if the courts want to let them out we will make sure we make it as difficult as we can to prevent them from committing those type of offences,” he said.
Mr Todd said that gathering evidence in these types of crimes can be difficult.
But Mr Todd vowed that crimes against the elderly are being treated as a matter of urgency.
“This type of crime really really makes me angry. It is just the most despicable crime.”
Mervyn acheson, victim’s brother‘
This is a family destroyed. I don’t know how they are going to survive without him’
Mervyn Acheson’s 72 year-old brother Bertie Acheson was killed when he confronted an intruder in his Coleraine home last week while he and his wife Sheila were at home.
“These people destroy lives. Look what happened to Bertie’s family. This is a family destroyed. Time is a healer but I don’t think Bertie’s wife, his daughter, son-in-law and grandson will ever fully recover from this.
I just don’t know how they are going to survive without him.
When you see how this has affected them it is heartbreaking.
What happened to my brother will always stay with us. The family has been left in a terrible situation.
Listening to people who live near Bertie, everyone is looking over their shoulders, wondering if the person who did this is someone in the estate or if they will come back or could it happen to them.
It is a natural reaction. People feel very vulnerable.
I don’t think the burglar who broke into my brother’s house came in to hurt anyone, but he did.
It is just so sad what happened to my brother. Lives have been destroyed because of this. Being fair to the police they have done a lot of work to try and catch this |person.
They have put a lot of man hours into this. But this person is still out there and it is very frustrating. We want this guy caught. Somebody knows who he is.
He is out there walking around and my brother is dead. This person could do this to someone else. He must be caught.
What also frustrates me is how the courts deal with these people. You read about it in the |papers time and time again how people with multiple convictions are released with light sentences. There is no deterrent there. The courts should be severe on these people.
They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with these crimes so leniently. These crimes |destroy lives. Look at what has happened to my brother’s family.
I was with his daughter just a few hours after he died and she was inconsolable.
The affect of this crime on all our lives will never go away.”
Helen agnew, victim‘
Since the robbery I never go out without wondering what may be around the corner’
Portadown pensioner Helen Agnew (76) was knocked unconscious by a robber while she was out shopping with her 94 year-old neighbour in February. Mrs Agnew sustained cuts and bruising all over her body and had her handbag snatched during the attack.
“They still haven’t caught the person who did this to me. It makes me really angry that he is still out there and free to do it to |somebody else.
It also makes me feel |vulnerable, both in my own home and out in public places.
After I was attacked I did not want it to stop me from |living my life. You have to get on with your life and hope for the best.
But since the robbery I never go out without wondering what could be around the corner or looking over my |shoulder.
I am always wondering who could be watching me. But I try very hard not to let it get me down as that is not the sort of way to live. I received a lot of bad injuries but I was very lucky that I was not seriously hurt. When I heard about what happened to that poor man in Coleraine it made me think how that could have been me.
I am so very lucky to be alive. I could so easily have fractured my skull and been very seriously hurt. It was just dreadful what happened there in |Coleraine.
I think that the law is very lax with this sort of thing. That is my |impression.
If they catch someone then they should really punish them. People need to know that if they go out to do things like this that they will be in serious trouble if they are caught. At the minute, there is very little stopping people from attacking vulnerable people.
They are not afraid about being caught. I would really like to know who did this to me and why.”
Timeline of incidents
30 APRIL, 2012: Bertie Acheson (72) died of a heart attack during a struggle with a burglar in his Coleraine home.
19 MARCH, 2012: A 91-year old was attacked in her home in Killyleagh and left badly shaken.
1 MARCH, 2012: A gang of robbers trashed the Crossgar home of 71-year-old Eric Moreland and threatened him after they realised he had no money in his house.
27 FEBRUARY, 2012: Brothers, Jimmy (83) and Patsy (81) Murtagh were attacked by robbers in their Newry home for the third time.
17 FEBRUARY, 2012: Portadown pensioner Helen Agnew (76) was knocked unconscious as she struggled with a robber close to her home.
1 NOVEMBER, 2011: Jim Calvert (80) was bound by cable ties by a masked gang who ransacked his home near Dundrod.
21 OCTOBER, 2011: A woman (89) was attacked in her home near Crumlin.
21 OCTOBER, 2011: An intruder held a 94-year-old woman down as another ransacked her home near Ballynacraig, Co Down.
30 SEPTEMBER, 2011: Two men broke into the home of Josie Hamilton (84) in Belfast and assaulted the pensioner, leaving her heavily bruised.