A 28-year-old man who enlisted the help of a young girl to carry out a spate of handbag thefts was jailed yesterday.
Handing Christian Lakatos a 20-month sentence, Judge Neil Rafferty said his criminality involved "the cynical exploitation of a child, and such offending belongs in the novels of Charles Dickens rather than 21st century Northern Ireland".
Lakatos, who is from a Roma background and with an address at Sliabh Dubh View in Belfast, was informed he will serve half his sentence in prison followed by a 10-month period on licence, after he pleaded guilty to five thefts.
Prosecuting barrister David McNeill said Lakatos' offending occurred in supermarkets across Belfast in November 2018, where he used the same modus operandi.
This, the prosecutor said, involved him going to a supermarket with the child, who then stole handbags from women pushing trolleys.
Following the theft both Lakatos and the child would leave the scene in his car.
When Judge Rafferty asked for further details about the girl, he was told she was aged around 12 and is no longer in Northern Ireland.
Belfast Crown Court heard all five handbag thefts were carried out at various stores including Asda on the Shore Road and M&S on the Lisburn Road on dates between November 2 and 10, 2018.
During one of the thefts a woman had her handbag stolen from her trolley while she tried on a coat, while another woman who was shopping felt a jerk from her trolley then realised her bag was missing.
All the bags contained purses and cash, mobile phones, bank and store cards and, in one case, two sets of Rosary beads.
Following the theft of a handbag at the Kennedy Centre staff noted Lakatos' car registration, which was handed to police. The vehicle was then traced to an address in Belfast and when that house was searched some of the stolen items were recovered.
He was arrested, and despite initial denials, later pleaded guilty to five counts of theft.
Defence barrister Richard McConkey pointed that whilst Lakatos never "physically took" any of the handbags he admitted the offending as part of a joint enterprise.
Mr McConkey revealed that Lakatos was finding custody "difficult" and said "culturally he is in a very different environment that has led to a degree of isolation".
Sentencing Lakatos, Judge Rafferty highlighted the use of a child for offending and said: "I am satisfied that he (Lakatos), if not the orchestrator, was certainly a key player."
Branding this offending as "the cynical exploitation of a child", Judge Rafferty added this offending was "not a one-off" but rather a "systematic period of offending".
Judge Rafferty handed Lakatos the 20-month sentence and concluded by saying those who use children to commit criminal offences could expect jail time.