A JUDGE sent out a stark message to graffiti vandals yesterday by handing down prison sentences to three members of a gang which caused nearly £180,000 of damage in a wrecking spree across the region.
The gang of graffiti artists covered hundreds of buildings and railway bridges in their distinctive tags over eight months, giving transport operators a huge clean-up bill.
Network Rail alone had to pay for a £140,000 clean-up after the “crew” covered the line between Newcastle and Sunderland in their scrawls.
At Newcastle Crown Court yesterday, a judge handed down prison sentences to three of the vandals in an effort to deter others.
Judge Esmond Faulks locked up the three for a total of 45 months after hearing they had covered sites in Newcastle, Gateshead and County Durham in their work.
Two others were spared jail after the court was told they had played a lesser part in the spree.
Judge Faulks said: “The damage was carried out by means of graffiti spray, a form of vandalism which has cost a great deal to remove.
“It’s apparent you did this for your own self gratification and advertisement, not for anyone else, and the problem was widespread.”
The notorious gang – who named themselves WTR – often recorded their work on digital cameras and would return to sites as soon as they had been cleaned up to vandalise them again.
The crew were finally caught when police ended a long-running operation with a wave of arrests last summer. During the raids police seized spray paint, cameras, photo albums and laptop computers. They also monitored websites and found pictures of the gang’s work stored on one of the accused’s computers.
After being arrested, all five admitted conspiracy to damage property.
All from Gateshead, Steven Findlay, 21, of Valley Gardens, was jailed for 18 months; Stephen Wilson, 19, of Lynneholme Gardens was sent to a young offenders’ institution for 18 months and Anthony Murphy, 19, of Clyde Street received nine months at a young offenders’ institution.
Garry Bowron, 19, of Church Road, was given a six-month sentence suspended for two years and ordered to do 100 hours’ unpaid work, pay £500 costs and observe a three-month curfew, and a 16-year-old was given a 12-month community order, a three-month curfew and ordered to pay £500 costs. The court had been told that all five members of the gang were hard-working, were from good families and had very few convictions among them. But Judge Faulks said he had to send out a message to others who considered vandalising property.
He told the five: “I consider you decent young men – people of good character – but some of you are going to have to go to custody because you have passed the custody threshold and as a deterrent.”
His sentences were welcomed by police yesterday. Gateshead area command’s Detective Inspector Jamie Pitt said: “Criminal damage, graffiti and anti-social behaviour in any form will not be tolerated by Northumbria Police.
“It clearly impacts on the local community and thereby the quality of life of everyone.
“I hope this operation goes some way to demonstrate the importance police in Gateshead place on bringing offenders who commit these types of offences to justice.”
Gang worked on Metro
TWO members of the WTR gang joined a legitimate project to decorate the Tyne and Wear Metro system after their arrest.
Steven Findlay and Garry Bowron both responded to an appeal by a project worker at North Tyneside Council to take part in a scheme to brighten up the area.
A Nexus spokesman said: “They were open about their impending court case, but said they wished to work in a legal way in the future, and Nexus was aware of this.
“As a result, they took part in creating a work at a Metro underpass in Howdon in a partnership between Nexus and North Tyneside Council aimed at reducing illegal graffiti attacks in the area.”
Findlay and Bowron have also been involved in legitimately decorating a skate park in South Tyneside.
The Howdon initiative was one of several introduced by Nexus to tackle anti-social graffiti, which bosses say have had a positive impact.
Unwelcome art attacks cost £1m a year
Unwelcome art attacks cost £1m a year MORE than a million pounds is spent every year cleaning up graffiti in the North-East.
Yesterday transport operators who regularly foot bills running into hundreds of thousands of pounds welcomed the move to put the vandals behind bars.
Tyne and Wear Metro operator Nexus spends £350,000 a year to remove daubings from trains, stations and trackside buildings, and clearing messages scratched into windows and doors.
It has a strict policy, aiming to remove all scrawls from stations within five days and any offensive work within 48 hours.
A Nexus spokesman said: “We welcome the sentences and hope that they send out a strong message to others.
“People who illegally daub our property with graffiti are just spoiling the system for the majority of law-abiding passengers who use the Metro every day.”
That sentiment was echoed by Network Rail, which had to spend £140,000 to clean up damage done by the WTR gang. It said vandals were taking their lives in their hands.
A spokeswoman said: “We take a very tough line on graffiti – not only is it an anti-social crime, it costs the railway industry millions
of pounds every year, diverting valuable resources away from improving the railway.
“Some may think graffiti is a bit of harmless fun, but in reality it’s a serious blight on the local environment and in many cases unpleasant for passengers to look at. Our maintenance crews fight a never-ending battle to remove graffiti, which in some cases appears almost as soon as it’s cleared away.
“In addition to the unsightly disadvantages of graffiti, anyone trespassing on the railway is literally playing with their lives as they could be hit by a train or electrocuted.”
About £1.3m is spent in the region each year on removing graffiti, with some authorities forking out nearly £300,000.