Jailed: Professional burglary gang that carried out high-value raids on 40 homes across Sunderland and the north east
The hooded raiders, who dressed in dark clothes, forced their way in to homes, which were ransacked during untidy and determined searches, and made off with thousands of pounds worth of jewellery, cash and electrics.
Newcastle Crown Court heard despite the disruption, not a fingerprint or major piece of forensic evidence could be found at the targeted houses.
It was only when detectives pieced together footprints found near the scenes, trawled through hours of CCTV, scoured mobile phone records and even matched an abandoned bus ticket to one of the gang that they were finally brought to justice.
By then, victims, who were aged up to 92 and one who was suffering from cancer, had lost precious and irreplaceable possessions, including wedding and engagement rings and were left up to £30,000 out of pocket.
Many, including children, now feel unsafe in their homes and say their lives have been violated.
During the raids, the burglars ripped alarm boxes off walls, slit furniture and even searched lofts to ensure they got away with all they could.
Nearby, but not directly outside the burgled houses, the crime gang would have a getaway car ready and waiting.
Andrew Smith, 42, of Sidings Place, Fencehouses, Peter Hopper, 51, of Cooper Square, Durham, and Christopher Randall, 35, of Oak Avenue Road, Sherburn Estate, all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit burglary.
It is believed more gang members have not yet been caught.
Judge Penny Moreland said victims used the words "distraught, fearful, terrified and traumatised" when describing the effect the raids had on them.
The judge said: "There were 40 burglaries, very often two burglaries in the same night, in the same area.
"The burglaries covered a wide geographic, spread across the north east of England.
"The burglaries were committed by a group of people, which included you three, but others must have been involved.
"The burgled properties were generally ransacked, I have seen photographs of the disorder which was left in the wake of such burglaries.
"The target of the burglaries appears to have been high value items, particularly jewellery.
"Jewellery is likely to have great sentimental value to its owners and that must have been apparent to you.
"Items such as wedding rings and engagement rings were taken by you. "
Judge Moreland sentenced Smith to nine years and 11 months behind bars.
Hopper was sentenced to eight years and one month.
Randall was sentenced to five years and five months.
Prosecutor Peter Makepeace told the court homes across Sunderland, Durham, Seaham, Gateshead, Washington and Chester Le Street were targeted between August 2013 and January 2014.
Mr Makepeace said often two homes would be targeted within the space of just hours.
He said: "The frequency of with which these burglaries took place is demonstrative of just how busy this particular crime group was with these burglaries."
Mr Makepeace said raiders were caught on CCTV disposing of their footwear after break-ins so that there would be nothing to link them to the crime if the getaway car was stopped by the police.
He said it was only through "determined" police work that the gang was stopped.
Mr Makepeace told the court: "Each of the addresses were subject to extensive forensic analysis.
"No finger prints were found at any address.
"There was very, very little forensic evidence recovered in this case.
"On one occasion a bus ticket was found blowing around in the garden (of a burgled house).
"Police were able to find the time it was purchased, went to the bus company, acquired cctv from the interior of the bus and were able to see exactly the time and date.
"That ticket was purchased by Andrew Smith."
Mr Makepeace said detectives trawled CCTV belonging to private companies and houses to bring the gang to justice and tracked mobile phone logs which allowed them to use cell site analysis to place the burglars at the scenes of the raids.
The court heard the impact on many of the victims has been devastating.
Second prosecutor Richard Herrmann told the court many lost items of sentimental value which can never be replaced.
Mr Herrmann told the court one victim said: "Some of the jewellery was passed down to me by relatives. I will never be able to replace these items. "
Another said; "I am upset people think they have the right to break into people's homes and take things they have worked hard to buy."
Many victims described having trouble sleeping after they were targeted and no longer feeling safe in their homes.
Defence barristers said each defendant was not involved in every single raid and that no weapons were used during any of the break-ins.
None of the men have bad records for burglary.
Christopher Knox, defending Smith, said his client has significant health problems and accepts he must receive a substantial jail term.
Michael Hodson, defending Hopper, said "debt" was at the heart of his offending and he admitted involvement in 19 separate raids.
Andy Rutter, defending Randall, said his client took an active part in just three raids so he could pay off drug debts then ended his involvement completely.