Two divers who looted the wrecks of the scuttled German fleet in Scapa Flow have been fined £18,000 each in a “unique” Scottish court case.
Glasgow dentist Gordon Meek and American businessman Robert Infante systematically removed equipment including telephone units, lanterns and lamps and a ship’s bell from seven battleships and cruisers that lie off Orkney.
The spree was detected when people on another charter boat in the popular diving area spotted a diver with a bag full of rusty items.
Police stopped the men when they landed and discovered stolen items on the boat and in the boot of a car.
It is not known how much the items are worth because of their rarity – but single items from less infamous war sites can change hands for hundreds of pounds each.
Meek, 67, and Infante, 48, appeared yesterday at Kirkwall Sheriff Court and admitted the 2012 offences under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas act 1979 – the first of its kind in the country.
Speaking following the sentencing, Andrew Laing, Procurator Fiscal for Grampian, Highlands and Islands, said:
“For a number of decades now Scapa Flow has been one of Europe’s top attractions for sports divers with the wrecks being of great significance to our heritage and the local community.
“They have lain on the sea bed for nearly 100 years and the vast majority of those visiting have treated them with the respect they deserve.
“It is vitally important that there are laws in place to protect such important sites and as with this case where there is sufficient evidence of a crime and if it is appropriate and in the public interest to do so, we will prosecute.”
The court heard yesterday how police armed with a search warrant found a broken bulk head lantern frame on the boat and later – when searching Meek’s car – retrieved further items including a chest microphone, telephone unit and bulk head lanterns.
Regarding value, Procurator Fiscal Sue Foard said: “There did not appear to be a clear answer to this because of the rarity of these items. It’s known that land-based field phones can sell for £500, Navy badges for £110 and German Beer Mugs £200 but these were items directly from the WW1 German Fleet.”
A steam pressure gauge, electric ship’s bell and portable lamp were among the other items removed from the SMS MarkGraf, SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm and SMS Konig WW1 battleships and the SMS Coln, SMS Dresden, SMS Karlsruhe and SMS Brummer WW1 cruisers.
Infante’s defence agent Brian Cooney said: “My client understands the sensitivities of this situation in Orkney. He is someone who has studied and is fascinated by the wartime history of the area and wishes it to be known that he had never any intention of selling the artefacts from Scapa Flow on for a financial profit.”
First offenders Meek, of Carmunnock Road, Glasgow, and Infante, of Morris Avenue, Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, both pleaded guilty to the offences which took place between the 8th and 12th of October, 2012.
Pleas of not guilty from boat owner John Thornton, 61, of Peedie Sea Loan, Orkney, and and Simon Ball, 47, of Scutts Close, Lynchettematravers, Poole, Dorset, were accepted.
Sentencing, Sheriff Andrew Berry said: “I pay credit to those who saw and reported the thefts as they were unfolding and the police for acting so swiftly to secure the items.
“If nothing else I hope that the fines I am imposing will convince other divers that to break the law in this way might prove to be an expensive exercise.”