TWO criminals who admitted plotting to break in and steal Chinese artefacts worth £1.8m from a museum have denied smashing a wall in the premises and grabbing the items from cabinets.
Durham University’s Oriental Museum was the scene of a highly-professional, high-stakes raid last Easter, Durham Crown Court heard.
Thieves escaped with an 18th-Century jade bowl and a Dehua porcelain figurine which dated from the Qing Dynasty.
Lee Wildman, 35, and Adrian Stanton, 32, both from Walsall, admitted conspiracy to burgle at a previous hearing on the basis that they were recruited to help unnamed figures who carried out the break-in in April.
That basis of plea was rejected and Judge Christopher Prince is hearing a trial of issue to determine what role they played. The two will be sentenced on Friday, along with four others.
Wildman told the judge he and Stanton were recruited from the West Midlands to help figures in the North East after chatting to associates at a garage in Walsall. He said they travelled to Durham without knowing what they were to be asked to do as they needed “to earn some money”.
There, they met some people in a silver Mercedes at a car park, who asked them both to go into a building – the museum – and grab Chinese artefacts, the older the better, Wildman said.
“They said ’Get any Chinese pieces for us you can’,” he told the court.
But security staff made him check in his rucksack so they had no opportunity to break into the cabinets and grab the items. CCTV images played in court showed the men testing the locks on the cabinets in preparation for the raid later, the prosecution claimed.
When the men left empty-handed, the gang in the car outside were angry, Wildman said, and grew aggressive. So he offered to provide them with stolen cars, for a fee of £1,000 each, he claimed. That explained a series of journeys police have traced using number plate recognition cameras between Walsall and Durham over the following days.
Wildman insisted he did not take part in the raid at the museum which took place in the evening of April 5 last year.
Peter Makepeace, prosecuting, said Wildman was telling “a pack of lies”.
Wildman declined to name any of the people at the garage in Walsall or in the North East. He claimed West Midlands Police had warned his family last year that their lives were at risk. When Wildman and Stanton were arrested at a Midlands hotel on May 1, each had around £5,000 in cash, the court heard.
Wildman claimed his brother had given him the money. He did not know where Stanton got his cash, he said.
A Seat Leon parked outside, which the prosecution claimed Wildman was using, contained a balaclava, a crowbar and false number plates. “Nothing to do with me,” Wildman said.
Stanton, of Telford Road, Walsall, said the contacts who put him and Wildman, of Remington Road, Beechdale, Walsall, in touch with the North East gang were “big time” with “flash cars”.
The case was adjourned until today.