TWO men who stole precious Chinese artefacts valued at £2million have been jailed for a total of 17 years.
A third man who supplied cars for the daring raid on Durham City’s Oriental Museum has been jailed for 20 months.
Three women who helped the gang evade capture for several weeks were given suspended sentences.
Judge Christopher Prince, sitting at Durham Crown Court, praised the work of the detectives in the case, and the local media coverage which enabled witnesses to realise the significance of what they had seen.
The museum has spent “hundreds of thousands of pounds” beefing up security in the wake of the thefts last April, the court heard.
Prosecutor Peter Makepeace said the raid was well planned and organised, but descended into farce when the thieves stashed the artefacts on waste ground and were then unable to find them.
“A neat hole was cut in the outside wall of the museum,” said Mr Makepeace.
“The thieves went straight to where the Qing dynasty jade bowl and porcelain ornament were displayed, took them in seconds and made their escape.
“The items were hidden on waste ground at Browney, near Durham City, and the gang swapped cars and made their way back to their homes in Walsall in the West Midlands.
“When a member of the public in Browney later saw a stranger apparently searching for something, she recalled local media coverage and was able to put two and two together.”
Police, who traced the gang across the country via CCTV and number plate recognition cameras, carried out a fingertip search of the waste ground and recovered the items undamaged.
The museum intends to put them on show again later this year.
Lee Wildman, 36, was jailed for nine years and Adrian Stanton, 33, was jailed for eight years. Both men admitted conspiracy to burgle.
Justin Oliver Clarke, 31, was jailed for 20 months. He admitted assisting an offender, as did Fallon Arrowsmith, 20, Charmaine Wilkes, 28, and 21-year-old Natasha Partridge.
Arrowsmith and Wilkes were each sentenced to six months in prison, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to do 200 hours of community work.
Partridge was given a four-month suspended sentence and 40 hours of work. All six are from Waslsall, in the West Midlands.
Judge Christopher Prince said: “The theft was a huge blow to the Oriental Museum, but the local media and the people of Durham rallied rapidly to help recover the items.
“This was done with the assistance of meticulous, diligent and expert detective work by Durham Police.”
Detective Superintendent Adrian Green, who led the inquiry team of 120 officers, said: “It was a fantastic sentence on the two main perpetrators.
“It sends a strong message to travelling criminals that if they come to Durham they face arrest, conviction, and significant punishment.”