A CARE worker has been jailed for pocketing thousands of pounds belonging to some of the "most vulnerable people in society".

Durham Crown Court yesterday (April 20) heard how Lyndsey Gray systematically stole a total of £16,350 from four men with severe learning disabilities who were living in supported accommodation.

The 40-year-old abused her position as the first line manager at Durham-based Marwood Park, run by St Anne's Community Services, between March 2014 and March 2015. Another member of staff noticed discrepancies in amounts of cash withdrawn from one of the victim's bank accounts and the amount recorded as being signed out.

Tamara Pawson, prosecuting, said the defendant told her concerned colleague that money had been mistakenly placed with another resident but when further checks revealed more inconsistencies the issue was flagged up to the area manager.

It was discovered that four residents had been targeted - one having £7,050 unaccounted for, another with £6,000, the third with £1,900 and the fourth with £1,400.

Gray, of Tunstall Cottages, Wolsingham, initially denied involvement and suggested other staff members could be responsible.

She then pleaded guilty to four counts of theft, but a private trial of issue hearing was held for her to put forward several factors which she claimed mitigated her crimes.

Judge Christopher Prince then gave a ruling on her claims, which included that she stole the money to pay off drug debts accumulated by her son who was addicted to heroin.

The mother said she, her son and then 12-year-old daughter were threatened by drug dealers.

As well as using cash taken from the four victims, who were in their 40s and 50s, she claimed she used £8,000 from her salary and pawned her engagement ring, maternity ring and other jewellery.

However, Judge Prince said although he accepted her son may have had a drug addiction, he found her evidence "entirely incredible", "invented and untrue" as the jewellers had no record of the exchange.

He added if she thought she was in danger she should have sought protection from police.

Victim impact statements read to the court heard how Gray's crimes had caused distress to both the victims' families and staff members who were investigated.

The mothers of two victims expressed their "shock" and "disbelief" at the "betrayal" of the carer entrusted with their sons' financial matters.

Julie Robinson, chief operating officer for St Anne's, condemned Gray who she said "systematically and fraudulently manipulated vulnerable people to defraud them".

Jane Waugh, mitigating, said Gray was remorseful and had taken part in a restorative justice programme.

Gray was handed an immediate 21-month prison sentence for each offence to run concurrently.

Addressing the defendant, Judge Prince said: "Your offending was heartless and heartbreaking. It is important you receive this punishment for your behaviour and the clear message is sent out to those in care that if you steal from such persons you will be sent to prison."