TWO men who sold a war memorial for scrap metal in exchange for £124 have walked free from court.

The £15,000 plaque, which measures 4ft by 2ft, commemorates Sunderland’s Second World War victims who died when the city was bombed.

It was stolen from Grangetown cemetery last September.

Newcastle Crown Court was told that teenager Anthony Roberts found the bronze tribute, which was engraved with the names of the dead, lying on grassland while he was out on a fishing trip.

The 18-year old then drafted in his friend, John Ferguson, 37, and the pair took the plaque to a scrapyard at nearby Pallion where it was traded in as scrap.

It was only later, when the metal merchant realised what he had actually bought, the police were alerted.

Roberts, of Greta Terrace, High Barnes, Sunderland, and Ferguson, of Athol Road, Hendon, Sunderland, both admitted handling stolen goods.

At Newcastle Crown Court yesterday, the pair were given suspended sentences.

Judge David Wood said: “It is an object of considerable sentimental value to those whose families are involved with those who are named on the plaque.

“It is regarded with great sentiment and pride to the people who live in that area.

“To have it stolen is bad enough, to have it weighed in at a scrapyard is just disgraceful.”

The judge told the pair: “How you two could have sunk so low to do that really beggars belief.

“I imagine you both are thoroughly ashamed of what you have done.”

Robert Adams, defending Roberts, who was given a nine-month jail term, suspended for 12 months with 150 hours’ unpaid work, said: “Most members of the public would be absolutely appalled that a war memorial came dangerously close to being melted down for scrap.”

Mr Adams said Roberts was a “stupid teenager” who did not realise the seriousness of what he had done.

Ferguson was sentenced to six months imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, with 150 hours unpaid work.

His barrister, Bob Spragg, said that Ferguson had not realised what the item was.

The memorial plaque, inscribed with 57 names, has been put up once again at Grangetown cemetery in Sunderland.

Councillor John Kelly, Sunderland City Council portfolio holder for safer city and culture, said: “ Any theft, but particularly from a cemetery, is despicable and it’s the kind of anti-social behaviour we are not prepared to tolerate in our city.”

Janet Brown, chairwoman of the North-East War Memorials Project, said the crime was “beyond contempt”.

Mrs Brown, 73, added: “It’s absolutely despicable. What an appalling time we live in.

Young men are still dying out there – their families can’t leave their bodies in Afghanistan because they’ll be desecrated, but there’s no respect in this country either.”