AN aggrieved businessman made a courtroom protest as his former filling station manager escaped prison for theft yesterday.

John Upex unfurled a home-made placard in the public gallery at Durham Crown Court as Recorder Graham Hyland passed a suspended sentence on Avril Jennifer Henderson.

Recorder Hyland had told 63-year-old Henderson he would not impose an immediate jail sentence after she was found guilty of theft of nearly £85,000 by a jury, following a three-day trial at the court last Wednesday.

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The judge said that because of her age and previous good character, he would suspend the sentence, and, due to her illhealth, she would be not be able to perform unpaid community work.

Henderson took the money over a five-year period while manager at the Blue Bell garage, in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, altering sales returns to cover for the theft.

The prosecution said she took the money to meet mounting debts, while sales plummeted at the station due to competition from a nearby superstore.

Henderson, of Brockwell Court, Newton Aycliffe, denied theft and, after the guilty verdict, sentencing was adjourned for the preparation of a probation background report.

Having read the report yesterday, Recorder Hyland said it appeared she still failed to acknowledge her guilt.

Imposing a 12-month jail sentence, suspended for a year, with six months’ probation supervision, he told her: “The sooner you come to terms with what you did, the better it will be for you.

“I doubt you will trouble the courts again, but if you don’t comply with the order, the likelihood is that, despite your ailing health, you will be sent to prison.”

Having read of the problems caused to business owner John Upex, director of the Upex Group, who has since shut the garage, Recorder Hyland told prosecutor Nigel Soppitt: “I hope you have explained to Mr Upex there are certain guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council which judges and part-time judges are expected to follow.

We may not necessarily agree with them, but we are obliged to follow them.

“I have every sympathy with Mr Upex .”

But as Recorder Hyland imposed his sentence, Mr Upex unfurled his banner referring to a recent court case in Manchester in which a 70-year-old accounts clerk was jailed for three years for theft.

The placard read: “Gran 70-years-old. Convicted of the same crime. Three years jail sentence”.

Seeing the placard, Recorder Hyland asked Mr Soppitt to, “reiterate to Mr Upex what I have said about the guidelines.”

Leaving court, Mr Upex said he was angry that Henderson had, “effectively walked away Scot-free, without even a word of remorse”.