TWO burglars who carried out an “audacious” museum break-in were given lengthy jail sentences today (Friday February 8) despite the “farcical” outcome of the raid.
Lee Paul Wildman, 36, was jailed for nine years, and 33-year-old Adrian Mark Stanton, was given an eight year prison sentence for plotting and carrying out the “smash and grab raid on a grand scale”, at Durham’s Oriental Museum, late on April 5.
The pair smashed their way through a rear wall of the Durham University-run museum before snatching the targeted Chinese artefacts, worth an estimated £2m, from display cabinets.
But Durham Crown Court heard that despite their planning, they ended empty-handed due to their “crass ineptitude”, hiding the prized exhibits on wasteland alongside Harle Street, two miles away in the hamlet of Browney.
Stanton returned to Harle Street with co-opted driver Justin Oliver Clarke the following day to collect the car used in the raid, an Audi, changing the number plates before they left.
Wildman was seen exasperatedly looking round the scrubland, on April 7, before leaving at sunset having failed to pinpoint the stashed haul.
Following widespread media appeals the 18th Century items, said to have as much cultural as financial value, were recovered intact after being found under bushes at the site, eight days later.
The valued pieces, an expertly crafted jade bowl with its stand, and a porcelain figurine, each dating from the Qing dynasty, are now back in the safe-keeping of the university.
Both are to go back on display following a review and widespread improvements of security at the Elvet Hill museum to prevent any possibility of a repeat.
The raid was timed for the start of the Easter weekend break so few students would be around the usually busy surrounding university campus.
It sparked a police operation involving up to 120 officers and costing £70,000 just for the immediate manhunt.
Wildman and Stanton, both long-time criminals from Walsall in the West Midlands, soon became the main suspects, having been recruited to “steal to order”.
They were seen visiting the museum on what was believed to have been a reconnaissance mission on March 29.
They headed straight for the display featuring the Chinese artefacts checking the strength of the cabinets.
On the night of the raid they travelled to and from the museum in an Audi A3 bearing cloned number plates.
They changed cars again in Browney, having ‘hidden’ the haul for collection later in case they were stopped heading back to Walsall that night.
Wildman was arrested two days later returning to the West Midlands following the abortive mission to recover the stash.
Peter Makepeace, prosecuting, said an oversight by the Crown Prosecution Service led to him being released without charge and both Wildman and Stanton then lay low, hiding out in hotels in the West Midlands.
But, following a broadcast appeal on BBC’s Crimewatch programme, a tip-off to police led to their arrested at the Baron’s Court Hotel in Walsall.
Police recovered more than £10,000 from their rooms as well as computers bearing incriminating evidence about the cars used in the burglary.
Despite their denials, claiming it was “no offence to visit a museum”, they were charged with conspiracy, “with others”, to burgle.
Both Wildman, of Remmington Road, Beechdale, and Stanton, of Telford Road, both Walsall, admitted the charge on the basis they were involved in the plot, but were not the burglars on the night.
Their stories were rejected by the prosecution and, following a two-day trial of issue, Judge Christopher Prince accused them of telling “blatant and transparent” lies to cover their role in actually committing the break-in.
The court was told both were subject of suspended prison sentences imposed less than two months earlier for an overnight roof-top break-in at an amusement arcade in the Welsh seaside town of Rhyl.
Their recruited driver, 30-year-old Clarke, of Tamar Close, Walsall, who admitted two counts of assisting an offender, was jailed for 20 months.
Stanton’s girlfriend, Fallon Alexandra Arrowsmith, 20, of Walker Road, and Wildman’s girlfriend, 28-year-old Charmaine Wilkes, of Cornwall Close, both Walsall, each admitted assisting an offender, by helping to arrange their hotel accommodation.
They were each jailed for six months, suspended for 12 months, with an order to perform 200 hours unpaid work.
A friend of the women, Natasha Michelle Partridge, 21, of Remmington Place, Walsall, allowed them to use her credit card to make the booking at one of the hotels.
She admitted assisting an offender and was given a four-month prison sentence, also suspended for a year.
All three women were ordered to pay £250 towards the costs.