Callous thieves have caused more than £15,000 in damages to a Wearside-based charity following a late-night crime spree which saw them cut off fuel tanks from mini-buses and staff cars.
The vehicles, parked in the North East Autism Society’s Emsworth site in Carley Hill, Sunderland, are used by autistic children and young people for off-site curriculum education.
The students, who aren’t able to be taught in a classroom environment, access their education in a community setting so are reliant on the vehicles.
Many of those using the buses and cars will also struggle if their routine is changed or their surroundings aren’t what they were expecting.
Bosses say that a crime of this nature has a double impact, therefore.
The incident is thought to have taken place overnight on Tuesday.
It has been reported to Northumbria Police and officers have confirmed they are investigating.
John Phillipson, chief executive officer for the North East Autism Society, said: “Our staff turned up yesterday morning to see what initially looked like a fuel leak in the car park.
"On closer inspection it became clear that the tanks on multiple vehicles had been destroyed. It wasn’t until we looked at the CCTV that we realised the extent of this campaign of heartless vandalism.
“There’s no doubt about it, it was deliberate, calculated and designed to give the thieves a quick hit – but the impact on us is devastating.”
It’s thought two men climbed into the fenced compound by sliding down the branches of a nearby tree, carrying buckets, bottles and kitchen basins, ready to saw off diesel tanks before making off with the fuel.
The pair spent almost five hours between 9.40pm and 2.30am butchering the fuel tanks.
It is thought so much fuel was spilled that the men probably only made off with diesel with a street value of less than £100 – despite damage costing five figures.
The charity has had to ground 10 vehicles until the safety of each car and mini bus can be assessed.
A number of vehicles – a mix of cars and mini buses - are completely ruined.
The car park also had to be cordoned off until fire crews gave the all clear as a mix of petrol and diesel had been spilled.
Northumbrian Water and environmental health assessors were also called.
“At the moment the clean up is set to cost more than £1,000 to get a tanker in to the car park, and the damage to the vehicles, several of which are only months old, is climbing up to almost £15,000,” added Mr Phillipson.
Director of education for the North East Autism Society Chris Dempster said: “It takes a certain type of person who would deliberately and calculatingly steal from a charity.
"We don’t just have a spare £15,000 lying around to fix this – and that’s before we think about the hike in our insurance bills that will come from this.
"If there’s a business out there that feels they want to help us recoup the costs of this, any help would be very much appreciated.
“The loss of a mini bus may not seem much – but for autistic people, expecting their normal routine, expecting their familiar environments, and expecting their day to go as planned, it’s devastating.
"As a charity we’ve just invested in a fleet of new vehicles to keep our staff and service users safe. It’s a cruel blow.”
A spokeswoman for Northumbria Police said: "At about 9.30am, May 1, police received a report of damage to vehicles on a premise on Emsworth Road, Sunderland.
"It was reported that four vehicles had had fuel tanks damaged and fuel stolen.
"Inquiries are ongoing and anyone with any information is asked to contact officers via 101 and quote reference number 228 01/05/19."
Those people who think they may be able to help the charity recoup its costs should email Lindsay.email@example.com