SINGAPORE: During the COVID-19 "circuit breaker", a group of men conspired to enter a vacant school and dismantle wires, leaving them behind for another group to collect and transport for sale.
Seven bags of wires were taken from the Singapore Chinese Girls' Primary School in the dead of the night in April last year, with the cost of subsequent repairs amounting to $480,000.
Bangladeshi Rasel, 31, was the first of the second group - tasked with collecting the dismantled wires and moving them - to plead guilty to his involvement on Thursday (Jan 21).
He was given 17 months' jail for house-breaking in order to commit theft, with a second similar charge taken into consideration.
The wire thefts were part of a spate of similar cases in vacant schools last year, but there is no evidence so far to link Rasel's case to wire thefts from Tampines and Jurong Junior Colleges, the court heard.
On Apr 2 last year, Rasel - who goes by one name - was approached by his friend and co-accused Hoque Kazi Romzanul. Hoque asked Rasel and his two roommates if they were interested in getting paid to carry wires out of a school and load them on a lorry to be sold.
Rasel and his roommates agreed. At about 8.15pm the next day, the four men took a taxi to the school in Dunearn Road to steal the wires. Most of them had been dismantled earlier by an unknown group, through the arrangements of a mastermind who has not been identified, said the prosecutor.
CHECKED FOR ALL-CLEAR BEFORE CLIMBING IN OVER FENCE
Outside the school, Rasel's group stood at a nearby overhead bridge to check that it was all clear before climbing over a fence into the school, denting it.
They packed the dismantled wires in the school into sacks, pulling down some that had not been properly removed, filling seven sacks with the items.
After the group kept the wires behind a wall to avoid detection, Hoque called a driver to pick them up, lying to him that their lorry had broken down.
The group loaded the wires onto the lorry in the wee hours of the morning and went to Geylang, where they unloaded the wires. The items were subsequently sold to a shop and the four men returned home.
The next day, Hoque paid Rasel S$45 for the work done, and later asked Rasel and his roommates if they wanted to complete another job.
CAUGHT RED-HANDED ON SECOND ATTEMPT
They agreed and returned to the same school at 6pm on Apr 4, 2020, entering the same way and packing the wires. Rasel saw his roommate trying to tilt a closed-circuit television camera that was mounted on the wall and helped him to do it.
However, employees from the security centre saw that the camera had been tampered with and played back the footage to see Rasel pushing the camera upwards.
At the time, the school was managed by the Singapore Land Authority, which appointed Certis CISCO Security to guard it. The school was unoccupied and there were initial plans to use it as a governmental quarantine facility, but this "did not come to fruition due to unknown reasons", said the prosecutor.
Certis CISCO called the police and a few officers arrived at the school at 11.40pm that day to investigate. Rasel's two roommates saw the police officers and told Rasel and Hoque to hide. They went to the upper levels of a classroom block, but were spotted by the police when they checked all the rooms.
Rasel and Hoque were arrested and the police seized several items including the six sacks of wires, a sack of tools, pairs of gloves and multiple bundles of wires.
The cost of reinstating the dismantled wires and related costs amounted to S$480,000, the court heard. Of this, the cost of supplying new wires alone, based on an estimated 500m of wiring, was about S$25,000.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Wee Yang Xi asked for at least 18 months' jail for Rasel, saying that he had entered the school surreptitiously and that there was a high degree of sophisticated planning as well as "a wider criminal enterprise".
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"The offence was planned by an unidentified mastermind who even arranged for the wires to be sold to a shop in the wee hours of the morning," said Mr Wee.
Rasel's group had broken into the school at night and stayed in the compound for hours to carry out their offences "under the concealment of the night and the lower level of watchfulness of the school", he said.
"Even though it was unused, the school was a building with intact facilities and property under the management of the Singapore Land Authority, a statutory board, at the material time."
The dismantling of the wires involved "acts of wanton vandalism" including cutting the wires and pulling out the wire case covers, said Mr Wee.
BORROWED A HUGE SUM TO COME HERE: RASEL
Rasel was undefended and gave his mitigation through an interpreter from his place of remand. He said he came to Singapore to work in January 2020 and was arrested a few months after.
"I borrowed a huge sum to come to Singapore and I was unable to return back the money, your honour. I am the sole breadwinner of my family. My parents are old and they are very sick," he said, asking for a lighter sentence to return home and care for his parents.
Upon questioning by the judge, he said he initially had a work pass and did work for a month but was told the company would close down, and was not given any salary or food.
District Judge Jasbendar Kaur asked the prosecutor if this case was linked to the alleged wire thefts from Tampines Junior College and Jurong Junior College last year.
"I have checked with SPF (Singapore Police Force) on this, and the case DPP for the Jurong and Tampines JC cases - as of now, there is no indication they are related, no evidence suggesting they are connected," answered Mr Wee.
Hoque is claiming trial, said the prosecutor. Of Rasel's two roommates, one intends to claim trial while the other was only recently arrested and investigations are pending.
Judge Kaur told Rasel that he had committed the offence to make money and that there was "a bigger planning at work". She backdated his sentence to his date of remand in April last year.
For house-breaking to commit theft, Rasel could have been jailed up to 10 years and fined. The junior college wire theft cases are pending.