AN accountant for a charity started stealing funds after spending an astonishing £150,000 on internet gambling sites, a court heard yesterday.

Deirdre Gilman was hooked on on-line slot machines and had already borrowed £50,000 from her family to pay off debts from her addiction.

The 40-year-old was spared prison after a judge heard that she is now in rehab, and her treatment programme is likely to last for two years.

Gilman of Fieldfare Road, Hartlepool, was given a 15-month suspended jail sentence, and told: "It's in the public interest that you be cured."

Judge Simon Bourne-Arton, QC, sitting at Teesside Crown Court, said: "I'm suspending the sentence because you have begun to sort yourself out.

"If I was to send you to an immediate term of imprisonment, all the good work that has happened and all the steps you have taken will be gone."

The court heard how Gilman was an accounts manager for the Greatham Hospital of God - a registered charity on the outskirts of Hartlepool.

The charity provides residential care, has almshouses and owns a number of retired workers' bungalows and houses in the village which it rents out.

Gilman was in charge of collecting rents an between February and August last year used a bogus receipt book for tenants and pocketed their cash.

Prosecutor Jenny Haigh told the court that after Gilman went on the sick, staff noticed that a large amount of money appeared to be missing.

External auditors were brought in and 51 suspect transactions were recorded amounting to a loss of £18,788, Miss Haigh told Judge Bourne-Arton.

Nigel Soppitt, mitigating, said Gilman deliberately failed to turn up for work after feeling guilty on a night out with colleagues she also classed as friends.

In an interview after her arrest last October, she said: "I went on the sick because I just couldn't stop stealing, and I wanted to get caught."

Mr Soppitt told Judge Bourne-Arton: "I know remorse features high in Your Lordship's consideration in these cases, and in this case it is outstanding.

"It came to light because she went out with the people she worked with and she said 'they were so nice to me and I realised I simply could not return'.

"She felt blame may fall upon them and she thought she might get caught. It was in the full knowledge she might get found out very quickly - and she was."

The court heard how Gilman has since been to a centre for addicts and is now a resident at a clinic in Bristol where she hopes to be cured in two years.

Mr Soppitt said: "It beggars belief to realise that she had spent £150,000 over the course of e preceding months by gambling on slot machines on-line."