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Banknote thieves told to repay pounds 1/2 m: Families' extravagant lifestyle ends with court order to give up ill-gotten gains. Ian MacKinnon reports

THREE families who stole banknotes due for destruction at a Bank of England incineration plant were yesterday ordered to repay more than pounds 500,000 by the High Court.

The couples, who led a 'life of Riley' way beyond their means, stole the money in pounds 20 and pounds 50 notes over a four-year period from the plant at Loughton, in Essex, where some of them worked.

One of the defendants, Christine Gibson, 44, described as the prime mover in the ingenious pounds 600,000 theft, left the depot with the notes stuffed in her bra and knickers.

All escaped criminal prosecution because witnesses who gave evidence in the High Court were not prepared to talk to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service was unable to prosecute on the basis of their extravagant lifestyle alone.

However, in an unusual move, the Bank of England cited their high living and sued for the return of the money with interest, seeking damages for breach of contract.

In a reserved judgment, Judge Norman Rudd, said that with regard to the families' explanation for their wealth, 'taken separately or together, the story is simply unbelievable', and held that they 'stole from the Bank of England'.

He also ordered the families, in addition to repaying their share of the stolen money, each to pay one- third of the costs of the case, unofficially estimated at pounds 250,000.

Mrs Gibson, of Loughton, Essex, and her husband Peter, 47, were ordered to return pounds 250,000. The judge also ruled Kenneth Longman, 34, and his wife Janet, should return pounds 150,000, and Michael Nairne, 39, and his wife Sharon, 36, all from Loughton, pounds 110,000. Judgment was stayed for 28 days pending appeal.

The court was told that the old notes were kept in cages with two padlocks, one black, one white. Mrs Gibson had the key for the black locks and someone else the white. But sometimes she was able to switch the white lock for another black one painted white which enabled her to open both locks. She and Mr Nairne would remove some cash while another employee, Kevin Winwright, who was jailed for a year after he admitted stealing pounds 170,000, distracted guards.

Between 1988 and 1992, the Gibsons allegedly spent pounds 317,000 more than they earned. Their extravagant lifestyle finally came to the attention of police when Mr Gibson went into the Ilford office of the Reliance Mutual Insurance Society and emptied pounds 100,000 in bundles of pounds 20 and pounds 50 notes from a carrier bag.

Shortly afterwards, Mr Nairne deposited another pounds 30,000, again in pounds 20 and pounds 50 notes, at the Reliance office. He claimed the cash had been found in a carrier bag behind a cooker at his late father's flat.

Anthony Boswood, QC, for the bank, told the court: 'There is an extraordinary Essex flavour about this case. These three families have been living the life of Riley, wildly above any conceivable legitimate means they could have earned.'

Yesterday, the judge agreed and rejected their explanations for their wealth as 'wholly incredible and totally unsupported' by the evidence.

A bank spokesman said: 'We are satisfied with the outcome of the case, but we are disappointed that it was necessary to bring it. Once the theft had occurred it was important that we recover the funds.'

(Photograph omitted)