A VIOLENT gang which stole cash machines from shops in the Star area and elsewhere was convicted at Winchester Crown Court last week.

The criminals, who netted thousands of pounds, carried out more than 20 early morning raids on convenience stores, and one bank, between August 1999 and July 2001.

The villains used stolen high performance four-wheel drive vehicles to ram the shops before loading up the cash machines and speeding off to share the spoils .

According to police they were also responsible for a further 40 raids on commercial premises, stealing designer clothes and other items, during the same period.

The gang was caught following the launch of "Operation Dartboard" which included the use of advanced surveillance techniques.

The four ringleaders convicted at the crown court were Joseph Smith, 20, of Stillwell Close, Yateley; Christopher Mintern, 37, of Southway, Camberley, and Danny Stevens, 23, and his wife, Carmella Collins, 25, of Highfield caravan park, Aborfield, near Reading.

Smith was found guilty of reckless driving with intent to endanger life, conspiracy to burgle, conspiracy to commit arson and criminal damage.

Mintern was convicted of conspiracy to burgle, conspiracy to commit arson, and reckless driving with intent to endanger life.

Stevens had previously admitted committing raids and burglaries on dates between 1999 and 2001.

Collins was found guilty of conspiracy to commit burglary, but cleared of conspiracy to steal.

Sentencing was adjourned until July 12.

Detective Chief Inspector Bob Crampton, senior investigating officer, described the gang as "very determined criminals" who had caused mayhem across Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire.

"The incidence of offences of this type has plummeted since the principal offenders were remanded in custody last year," he added.

They were caught thanks to a co-ordinated response from the police forces in the three counties.

Surrey police led the investigation, and Assistant Chief Constable Frank Clarke said: "I congratulate officers in all three forces on their excellent and highly professional police work, often carried out at no small risk to themselves."