A WELL-PLANNED museum raid targeting high value Chinese artefacts ended in “farce” when the burglars failed to find their hidden haul.
The Qing Dynasty jade bowl and 18th Century Dehua porcelain figure were taken from display cabinets after an outer wall was smashed to gain entry to Durham’s Oriental Museum, late on Thursday, April 5.
Following police appeals the prized items, worth an estimated £1.8m, were recovered intact after being found under bushes on waste land off Browney Lane, Brandon, near Durham, eight days later.
Durham Crown Court heard that suspects Lee Wildman and Adrian Stanton, from Walsall, in the West Midlands, were both seen visiting the museum on what was believed to be a “recce” on March 29.
In days after the raid both were spotted separately in Harle Street, Browney.
A witness observed Wildman looking round the waste land before returning to his parked car, talking in an agitated manner on his mobile phone, on April 7.
Although Wildman was arrested and released on bail, both he and Stanton then “went to ground”.
They were found “lying low” staying at the Baron Court Hotel, in Walsall, after a tip-off to police following an appeal on BBC’s Crimewatch programme, on May 1.
Both had £5,000 in their rooms when they were arrested.
Wildman, 36, of Remmington Road, Beechdale, and 33-year-old Stanton, of Telford Road, both Walsall, each admitted conspiracy to burgle when they appeared at Durham Crown Court, in July.
But the basis of their pleas, that they were involved in the plot but not the actual raid, was rejected by the prosecution and a trial of issue, or Newton hearing, was staged at the court this week.
The pair told the court they were “recruited” by men they were too frightened to name, to do “a job up north”.
They claimed they unsuccessfully tried to steal the items during their visit to the museum on March 29, and then merely agreed to supply powerful cars for use by others in the raid.
But, finding that they probably were involved in the raid, Judge Christopher Prince rejected their stories as “blatant, incredulous lies".
He described the raid as “well-planned, tenacious, persistent and audacious”, but the manner of entry “lacked sophistication”, with the saga ending “in farce” when they failed to recover the haul from the waste land where it was hidden.
Judge Prince told both they would lose credit for failing to be truthful about their role in the offence on their return to court tomorrow (Friday February 8) when they will be sentenced with four co-accused, including their girlfriends and a getaway driver.