AN 'extremely stupid' man found with three youths hiding in a cupboard behind a fridge freezer has narrowly avoided being sent to jail.

Jared Wells had been warned several times about hiding one of the youths in his house after he kept running away from his Darlington care home.

The 34-year-old former solider, who has a previous conviction for making indecent images of children, was told he would have been imprisoned if there had been any sexual element to the offence.

He pleaded guilty to a charge of detaining a child from person having lawful control.

Teesside Crown Court heard that the 15-year-old youth, named as child A, had been found hiding in Wells' home on Barden Moor Road, Darlington, on several occasions last year despite repeated warnings from police.

On the final occasion in September, Tom Mitchell, prosecuting, said police found the three youths hiding in the cupboard.

He said: "Youth A came out with two other people and the defendant denied knowing they were there. The house was in a bit of a mess; there was drugs paraphernalia left around the house.

"Jared Wells said he had no idea how the youths come to be in the cupboard."

The court heard the defendant had served in Afghanistan whilst in the army, albeit not on the frontline, but had dealt with injured comrades.

In mitigation, Jonathan Walker, said the youth had some kind of coercive control over the defendant and reassured the judge that there was no sexual motive behind the pair's relationship.

Judge Stephen Ashurst said: "The child concerned was 15-years old and it is clear from what I have read that he is a child who has had a troubled background. It may well be that he is very wilful and knows his own mind.

"It was his decision for him to go to your premises as he did – as with many troubled children, he didn't know what was best for him.

"You are either exceptionally stupid or exceptionally devious. If I suspected that there was any hint that you were tempting that youth to your property for a sexual motive, custody would be the starting point.

"There was no sensible explanation to why you allowed that boy into your house at that time; there was no sexual intention between the pair of you. This boy had other reasons for going to your property.

"I have come to the conclusion that you are extremely stupid for ignoring the warnings given to you. If that stupidity continues in the future, you will go into custody."

Wells was sentenced to a two-year community order.