THREE thugs who held a taxi driver at knifepoint with a 12 inch blade have been sentenced to a combined total of nearly 16 years behind bars.

In June last year Robert John O’Connor, 41, Catherine James, 46, and Joao Pinto, 39, booked a taxi from the Highlander pub in Gateshead to a house in Swalwell, and then back again to the pub.

But during the return journey, the trio asked the driver to stop in a layby near a pizza shop and when he obliged they scanned the area before James produced a knife and held it to the unsuspected taxi driver’s throat, demanding cash from him.

The frightened driver began handing over money, only to be struck on the head by Pinto as the trio demanded more money.

O’Connor then stole the victim’s coin stash from the driver’s door pocket, taking the stolen cash total to £250.

Before exiting the taxi the gang then pocketed the car’s dash cam – believing they had covered their tracks - and made off.

The victim was able to provide police with a detailed description of his attackers and officers arrested them just hours later.

Following a lengthy investigation trawling CCTV and telecoms - Pinto and James pleaded guilty to robbery at court.

O’Connor claimed the defence of duress during a week-long trial at Doncaster Crown Court but was subsequently found guilty by a jury.

They were sentenced at Newcastle Crown Court on December 6.

O’Connor, of Claremont Walk, Bensham, Gateshead, was jailed for seven years; James, of Front Street, Swalwell, Gateshead, was given three years and eight months and Pinto, of Saint Cuthbert's Court, Gateshead, was jailed for five years and three months.

Detective Constable Callum Meechan was the officer in charge, he said: “This would have been a terrifying incident for the taxi driver.

“But his quick response and 999 call allowed us to respond swiftly and in a matter of hours all three offenders were traced and arrested.

“I want to praise the driver for not hesitating before calling us and for providing us with such detailed descriptions of his attackers.”

Detective Inspector Tam Fowler, who oversees the Operation Benelli team, said:  “This was clearly a pre-planned robbery and I’m very pleased all three of the offenders have received lengthy sentences, it’s nothing less than what they deserve.

“I also want to praise the victim for keeping calm and helping us to trace the perpetrators within hours of the incident.”