Officers turned up at the home of 40-year-old Alexander Smith last June acting on information about the distribution of the illegal material from.
They subsequently found he had amassed a collection of more than 4,000 indecent images and movies of children over two years including more than 1,300 of the worst kinds of abuse.
Police seized a mobile phone when they went to Smith’s house.
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Matthew Hopkins, prosecuting at Teesside Crown Court, said: “It was analysed and it showed between the 18th of June last year and 20th of June the defendant engaged in three instant messenger chats with three separate individuals.
"He sent them a total of 14 category C indecent images of girls aged between eight and 14.”
Also, in a hidden app, police found 1,359 still and moving images in the highest category, 781 in the next, and 2,055 in the lowest category of seriousness.
Smith, of Alice Street, Sunderland, told police he stumbled across them while searching for legal pornography but continued to hunt them out.
Mr Hopkins added: “He said he did get some sexual gratification from the pictures in the past but he would never harm any children.”
The court heard Smith lost his job as a result of his arrest and has had a difficult time since with his mental health.
He admitted three charges of making indecent images and one of distribution.
Chris Baker, defending, accepted jail was possible but appealed to the judge to suspend the term saying he cooperated fully with the police and can be helped by the probation service.
Judge Chris Smith described the offences as “troubling”.
He said: “Make no mistake, this offending is so serious as to justify imprisonment.”
Judge Smith added: “At the other end of the camera that’s recording those pictures is a child who is being sexually abused and the court knows that sexual abuse inflicts harm upon its victims with often life changing consequences.”
Smith, who committed the offences in Hartlepool, was sentenced to nine months prison suspended for two years.
His phone was ordered to be destroyed and he will be on the sex offenders’ register for 10 years.