A MAN who feared losing thousands of pounds he had ploughed into a pub hired a gang to torch the premises in the hope of benefiting from an insurance claim.

John Bew, of Thorntree Gardens, Middleton St George, near Darlington, had invested £4,000 in the Oak Tree Inn, in the village, and, along with Kristopher Cardiss, from Dumfries and Galloway, in Scotland, recruited three other men for the scam, Teesside Crown Court was told yesterday.

Cardiss and one of the men, David Usher, 31, now of Hutton Avenue, Darlington, were living on the premises and were supposed to be providing security while landlady Gail Taylor was absent.

Bew, 39, and Cardiss, 32, also acquired the services of Graham Smallwood and Michael McDonnell, both 36 and from Leeds.

On March 3 last year, Cardiss drove Smallwood, Mc- Donnell and Usher to the pub.

The men broke in, stealing a plasma TV and drinks optics before smashing the pub up and setting it alight in an attempt to make it look like a burglary.

CCTV cameras were also removed.

Shaun Dodds, prosecuting, said the blaze caused more than £118,000 of damage.

He said: “Mr Bew and Mr Cardiss made a plan to recruit two people from Leeds to torch the pub to make an insurance claim.

“Mr Cardiss picked up the petrol and took the three men to the pub. He maintains Mr McDonnell began smashing up the pub before pouring petrol and lighting the fire, whilst he removed the CCTV equipment.

“Mr Cardiss then drove to Morton Park, in Darlington, to meet with Mr Bew before driving to Hartlepool to dispose of the equipment in the marina.”

It emerged that police had seen three men getting into Usher’s van at the pub, but because he lived there, it did not raise suspicions.

An investigation by the fire service and police found the cause of the blaze was arson.

Usher was arrested after he was recognised by one of the police officers who had seen him outside the pub.

The others were picked up later.

Bew, who was not present in court yesterday and will be sentenced at a later date, had already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit arson.

Cardiss pleaded guilty to the same charge and was jailed for 22 months.

Usher was jailed for 16 months, Smallwood for 18 months and Mc- Donnell for three-and-a-half years, after all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit arson and arson.

McDonnell’s sentence also included unrelated motoring offences.

Daniel Cordey, for Usher, said he deserved credit for his previous good character and said he felt under pressure from his employers to go along with the plan.

He said: “He is a dogsbody and was by no means the brains behind this operation.”

The court heard Cardiss had offered to pay compensation for the offence.

Thomas Moran, mitigating, said: “He is not trying to buy his way out of prison, but due to his hard work over the years he is in a position to pay forward substantial compensation. He feels very stupid and has asked himself why he was involved time and time again.”

Robin Mars, for McDonnell, said: “He genuinely thought he was going along to a burglary. He had hit rock bottom and had a high dependence on drugs and alcohol.

“His reward was to get a good drink out of it. He was, in the true sense of the word, a pathetic human being.”

Smallwood’s barrister, Danielle Graham, said: “He was not one of the leaders of this operation and had no reason to be involved. He feels very sorry.”