HURT, loss and bewilderment – those were the feelings of angry families at the theft of ornaments from graves of loved ones.

Items taken from 15 gravesides at West Cemetery in School Aycliffe, County Durham, were found in bags outside the nearby home of serial thief David Gary Ryan, last October.

Durham Crown Court heard that the grave ornaments, mementoes and other sentimental items were placed there by bereaved family members.

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John Gillette, prosecuting, said wardens, aware items had been going missing, spotted a man acting making off hurriedly when they entered the cemetery, on October 2.

Although they lost track of him, they spotted a bag containing a number of stolen items in the garden of a nearby property, where Ryan was living at the time.

Mr Gillette said police were contacted and other items were found in the vicinity, including some from a bag recovered from a hedge outside the property.

Mr Gillette, who said it would have been blatantly obvious where the items had come from, added that Ryan conceded he found some of the items in a bag in the garden, which he initially thought must be discarded rubbish.

He denied stealing them, however, and initially also handling them, knowing they were stolen.

But at an earlier hearing 42-year-old Ryan, now of Hargreave Terrace, Darlington, admitted one count of handling, covering all the items, plus theft of £2,000-worth of metal cable from a landfill site at Aycliffe Quarry, while he was on bail for the graveyard matters.

The court heard he has “an extensive record” including 38 convictions for theft and similar offences.

Mr Gillette added: “The victim statements reflect the hurt, loss and bewilderment, as well as the anger of the people who lost those items from the graves of their loved ones.”

Among his victims was Joanne Newman, who was horrified when she discovered glass ornaments and a commemorative plaque had been stolen from the graves of her baby sons, Caleb and Isaac. She regularly visits Darlington's West Cemetery with her husband, John, and their three daughters, Imogen, Ebony and Harmony.

Rod Hunt, mitigating, said: “Any fool would know these were items of sentimental value and were not discarded, and the defendant now accepts he should not have kept them and he realises the hurt caused to those bereaved families.”

He said Ryan was “one of life’s foragers, picking up anything not nailed down”, and people knew this, leading to stolen items finding their way to him.

Mr Hunt added that Ryan has suffered threats via social media as a result of the offence.

Jailing him for a total of 14 months, Recorder Jeremy Hill-Baker told Ryan that if he had been convicted of actually stealing the items the sentence would have been “much more severe”, but he added that handling them was “despicable enough” in its own right.