A FORMER estate agent who “systematically stole” more than £100,000 after he was made an executor of a £2.4m estate following the owner’s death has been jailed.

Roger Darnton forged a close friend’s signature, stole from a 90-year-old woman while she lived in a care home and spent thousands of pounds on antiques, bank repayments, council tax and a hotel stay.

The 53-year-old began the four-year cover up after he was given the responsibility of resolving a £2.4m estate after his lifelong friend and estate owner Robert Ramshaw died in 2011.

But Teesside Crown Court heard he began forging the signature of one of the estate’s trustees, cashing cheques and stealing from his dead friend’s safe just one year after the farmer's death.

Robin Turton, prosecuting, said: “After a number of generous bequests including £30,000 to the defendant, £400,000 was invested by the trustees in a legacy fund.

“A bank account for the estate was set up and the defendant kept the cheque book.

“From the start the defendant took the lead in resolving the estate. He suggested that he could sort out many of the matters normally dealt with by a solicitor and would thereby save the estate money.

“With his business experience he was felt to be the most capable to administer such relatively complex affairs and he was by and large implicitly trusted by the other executors.”

The court heard Darnton charmed his way into becoming the power of attorney for one of the estate’s beneficiaries and the executor of another’s will.

But at a meeting with the estate's trustees in 2017, Darnton “came to his senses” and admitted he had stolen almost £90,000 from the estate and he had been “fiddling his whole life".

His confession came just one year after he was caught withdrawing thousands from a 90-year-old woman’s bank account after he was made her power of attorney.

Darnton’s fiddling, which began in 2012, finally came to light when the pensioner, who was also a beneficiary of the Ramshaw Estate, moved into a care home and her children became suspicious of the former estate agent.

Five years of bank statements revealed the 53-year-old withdrew thousands of pounds which he spent on a weekend stay in Bristol, council tax, bank repayments and antique storage.

Ian Mullarkey, defending, said Darnton suffered a breakdown following the 2008 financial crash and the financial burden forced him into making “irrational decisions”.

He said: “His fall from grace has been very public and difficult for him and his family.

“He has made a positive contribution to Guisborough over the years including volunteer work, he was instrumental in the creation of the Guisborough Museum and was named Guisborough Citizen of the year.

“He was impacted by the financial crash of 2008 and at the time of the death of Robert Ramshaw he was struggling financially.

“He realises now that he should never had taken that on and to have access with large sums of money. He accepts that the financial pressure he was under made him make irrational decisions.

“He had hoped to give back the money and he was doing it as a temporary measure to relieve the financial pressure he was under at the time.”

He added that Darnton’s sick wife relies on him for support and he has since sold the family home to repay his victims.

Sentencing Darnton to two years in prison, Judge Howard Crowson said the former estate agent “systematically stole” from his victims and abused a position of trust.

He said: “It was only possible because you were trusted. Other executives were happy to write blank cheques and you were using those blank cheques to withdraw money for your own benefit.

“When you eventually felt you could not continue you had the meeting where you admitted your offences but even then you persuaded them not to go to the police.

“You abused a position of trust. The money was not spent on necessary items, it was spent for your own benefit, a huge sum was spent on storing antiques.

“You are well aware that for four years you were systematically stealing from more than one person.

“The only appropriate punishment is immediate custody.”

Wearing a sand coloured suit and bright yellow tie, Darnton, of Priory Close, Guisborough, hung his head and wiped tears with a handkerchief as he was sentenced to two years in prison for two charges of fraud.