DESPITE wearing a mask and gloves a prolific group of armed robbers were caught after officers spotted a distinctive tattoo on one of their forearms while he was threatening a shopkeeper at knifepoint.

Justin Stockbridge, 45, and a number of accomplices carried out a spate of robberies at off-licences and betting shops around London and surrounding counties over the best part of a year.

The gang donned masks and armed themselves with knives and axes before carrying out the robberies, with all the attacks taking place under the cover of darkness in London, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Surrey.

One of the robbers - 27-year-old Paul Evans - was found and arrested by Hertfordshire Police in December 2018, with specialist officers from Scotland Yard's Flying Squad quickly identifying Stockbridge, alongside Jamie Owen, 32, and Richard Mazzuccato (CORR), 34, as the other offenders.

However officers were unable to find the fugitives until later that month, when CCTV footage from a knifepoint-robbery at a betting shop in Chesham showed a distinctive tattoo on the thug's arm.

The tattoo was swiftly identified as being identical to one on Stockbridge's left arm and, several months later, he was arrested while driving a van outside a convenience store in Hertfordshire that the gang had previously targeted.

The van he was driving was linked to the last robbery in the series where a convenience store was targeted in Buckinghamshire on 18 March last year.

Stockbridge was found guilty of one count of robbery at Isleworth Crown Court on Tuesday and sentenced to seven years behind bars, while Owen - who was found guilty of three counts of robbery and one count of possession of a Taser used in a robbery, was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.

Evans pleaded guilty to three counts of robbery and was jailed for 11 years and one month, while Mazzuccato pleaded guilty to four counts of robbery at the same court on 27 August, and is due to be sentenced next month.

The court heard that both Mazzuccato and Stockbridge were habitual drug users, with the former claiming to have a £100-per-day crack cocaine habit - an addiction he argued was the reason for his criminal behaviour.

The gang's spree began in October 2018, when Owen and Evans assaulted and used a Taser on a taxi driver, making off with £80.

They repeatedly targeted cabbies across Hertfordshire and Surrey, often holding knives to their throats until they handed over cash, cards and mobile phones.

The robbers then turned their attention to targeting convenience stores and betting shops.

They always covered their faces with a balaclava or hoodie and threatened staff with a weapon – normally a knife, although an axe was used during several of the robberies.

Detective Sergeant Tim Fines, from the Met's Flying Squad, said: “I have no doubt that these suspects would have continued committing this horrific spate of robberies if they had not been identified and arrested.

"All of the robberies were terrifying ordeals for the victims – thankfully none of them suffered serious injuries during the attacks.

“These suspects were not afraid to use violence, often just for small amounts of cash.

"I am pleased that the jury agreed with the overwhelming evidence we built against the suspects and chose to convict them.

"I hope the sentences handed down will act as a deterrent to those thinking of carrying out such violent crimes.

"I would like to thank our colleagues from Hertfordshire, Sussex, Surrey and Thames Valley constabularies for their contribution to this investigation."