A “sophisticated” serial burglar who spent a decade travelling hundreds of miles at a time to target a suburb known for its rich and famous residents has been jailed for 14 years.
Astrit Kapaj, 43, was dubbed the “Wimbledon prowler” after stealing cash and jewellery valued at almost £500,000 during a series of raids on homes in the leafy south-west London suburb dating back to 2008.
The chip shop worker, who is originally from Albania and lived in Wimbledon shortly after arriving in the UK in the 1990s, travelled from his home in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, unbeknown to his family.
He pleaded guilty to 26 offences after his crime spree was finally brought to a halt by detectives this year.
But detectives believe the married father-of-two may have been behind 10 times that number of offences, with up to £5 million in stolen jewellery and cash lifted from homes in Wimbledon dating back to 2004.
Victims included German tennis star Boris Becker, while he was reportedly chased across a garden by French footballer Nicolas Anelka.
Neighbours said suspicion in the village was so rife that home owners sacked childminders, drivers and cleaners they assumed were responsible for the thefts.
Police said Kapaj was able to avoid detection for so long because of his meticulous planning, attention to detail and his unusual methods – such as repairing any damage he caused and insisting on only taking smaller sums of cash and valuables at a time, rather than making off with a haul of expensive items.
The court heard Kapaj, a gambling addict, said he owed money when he was arrested by police in Wimbledon on February 22 2019.
He initially told detectives the only way he would have been in a house in Wimbledon Village was if he was “sleep walking”, adding that he thought the burglaries were all “insurance claims”.
Sentencing him at Kingston Crown Court, Judge Peter Lodder QC said: “You are a prolific, persistent and professional burglar.
“Such was your stealth and expertise in many cases it remains a mystery how you gained entry to their homes.
“Not surprisingly, you terrified the whole community.”
Speaking immediately after sentencing, Laurie Porter, who sits on the Wimbledon Village Safer Neighbourhood Watch panel, said: “I’m relieved.
“I think it’s a wonderful result. I wasn’t in any way expecting it to be 14 years.
“I am sure the people of Wimbledon Village will be delighted with this result.”
At its height, Scotland Yard had a team of 50 officers working full-time to find the suspect, and had drawn up a suspects’ list of around 60 criminals with a record of burglaries in the south-west London area.
But Kapaj did not appear on police records.
A breakthrough only came when advances in DNA technology showed that two burglaries committed nearby but two years apart were carried out by the same suspect.
Police set up overt and covert operations in the area, arresting Kapaj in February this year.
He has never told police what happened to the money or jewellery he stole, which police have been unable to trace.
Mrs Porter, who has lived in the area for 27 years, said solving the mystery engulfed the community.
She said: “When people didn’t know why their things were going missing they were firing people who were working or helping them in their homes.
“There were many theories about who this person might be, but none of them correct. He (Kapaj) was constantly discussed at dinner parties, out on the street, at the pub – I don’t know what we’re going to talk about any more.
“He (Kapaj) was constantly in everyone’s minds, we didn’t feel safe in our homes. That leads to a state of unease.
“Now, we all set our alarms, we lock our doors, we don’t leave a room with windows open.”
Kapaj admitted 22 burglaries, three attempted burglaries and one count of going equipped for burglary, with thefts totalling £497,300.