TWO bungling burglars who stole Chinese artefacts worth £2m from a museum in Durham and then mislaid them in a field were handed lengthy jail sentences yesterday.
Lee Wildman, 36, was jailed for nine years and Adrian Stanton, 33, was handed an eight-year term for planning and carrying out the raid at Durham University’s Oriental Museum last Easter.
The pair, from Walsall in the West Midlands, had planned the break-in well, choosing the night before Good Friday when the campus was quiet, using cloned number plates and chiselling a hole through a brick wall to get in and out quickly.
But they also made some elementary mistakes. Staff at the museum in Elvet Hill became suspicious of the pair a week before the raid, when they walked into the museum on a reconnaissance mission carrying a crowbar in a rucksack.
Wildman was seen to shake the display cabinet holding one of the artefacts later stolen.
After they left staff called the police who took a sample of Wildman’s fingerprints from the cabinet.
The pair, both with lengthy criminal records, are believed to have gone to Durham steal the items to order for an unknown Mr Big.
From the display cabinets, they picked out just two items – a 1769 jade bowl and a porcelain figurine – worth up to £2m.
But their plan was flawed because after hiding the items on wasteland at Browney near Brandon on the south western outskirts of Durham, Wildman could not find them when he returned two days later.
He was seen by a witness searching the plot, speaking in an agitated manner on his mobile, as the light faded.
Judge Prince told the defendants they had shown “crass ineptitude” in being unable to find their haul.
Both men had shown no remorse and had told “transparent” lies during a two-day hearing at Durham Crown Court in which they tried to play down their roles in the burglary, the judge said.
“The financial value of artefacts such as these is perhaps the very least important factor,” he said. “These items have got a historical, cultural and artistic value that is quite simply immeasurable.”
The pair were each in breach of a suspended sentence after they were caught stealing £10,500 in coins from an amusement arcade in Rhyl, Wales.
Detective Superintendent Adrian Green said he was delighted with the sentences handed out, adding: “There were times when we thought we wouldn’t get the items back.
“When something is stolen to order, you think they will be spirited away, probably abroad, so we were over the moon to get them back. It was a fantastic call we made to the museum to say we had got the items back.”
Dr Craig Barclay, curator of Durham University’s Oriental Museum, said: “We are delighted that these important Qing dynasty artefacts were recovered quickly through the sterling efforts of police.
“Both objects were undamaged but require some conservation cleaning work as a result of the theft. We look forward to having them back on display.”
Justin Clarke, 31, of Taymar Close, Walsall, was jailed for 20 months for assisting an offender. The day after the theft, he drove an Audi S3, which had been used in the raid, from Durham to the Midlands.
Fallon Arrowsmith, 20, of Walker Road, Walsall, who was dating Stanton, was handed a six-month jail sentence, suspended for 12 months, and must carry out 200 hours’ unpaid work. She admitted assisting an offender.
Wildman’s girlfriend, Charmaine Wilkes, 27, of Cornwall Close, Walsall, received the same sentence as Arrowsmith for assisting an offender. Both women helped their partners lie low as police searched for them.
Natasha Partridge, 21, of Remmington Place, Walsall, received a four-month jail sentence, suspended for a year, and was ordered to carry out 100 hours’ unpaid work for assisting an offender. The sometime girlfriend of Clarke allowed her bank card to be used to book hotels.
Each of the women must pay £250 prosecution costs.