A RUTHLESS gang who held HGV lorries up in Cradley Heath and across the Midlands are facing jail.

Leigh Astbury and Peter Saunders were the masterminds behind armed raids on HGV drivers which netted the gang more than £6 million.

The men used complicated tracking devices to follow their victims and strike more than 40 times in Smethwick, Cradley Heath and Bloxwich.

Detectives trailed the violent gang for around a year from 2008 until their arrest in February 2009. In the 18 months before their network was smashed police investigated 43 HGV robbery offences in the force area - since their arrest they have recorded just one.

Detective Seargent Dave Hanson, who led the investigation, said: “The arrest of these men has coincided with a dramatic reduction in the number of lorry driver robberies in the West Midlands.

“High profile arrests like this combined with powerful proactive campaigns to raise awareness among HGV drivers have had a strong deterrent effect and have undoubtedly saved millions of pounds in stolen goods.”

Astbury, 29, and Saunders, 36, both pleaded guilty to four sample charges of conspiracy to rob at Wolverhampton Crown Court today (May 5).

Stephen Smith, aged 48, pleaded guilty to handling stolen goods for the pair.

A fourth defendant Marie Deakin, aged 30, pleaded guilty at an earlier appearance to perverting the course of justice.

The gang stole loads from freight vehicles for five months, but were finally arrested following a lengthy surveillance operation.

Astbury, from Calf Heath in Staffordshire, and Saunders, from Walsall, are due to be sentenced next month.