'It's a tall man's world,' says the 47-inch sneak thief

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The Independent Online

Pacing around the front room of his terraced house, the family jack russell yapping at the door, Lee Kildare appears agitated, rolling up his tracksuit trouser leg to reveal the grey plastic electronic tag that will enforce his court-ordered curfew. "I've got to wear this for four months," he said. "I can't leave the house after eight o'clock at night or before seven in the morning. It's annoying because it's the summer and all my mates are outside drinking."

Measuring 3ft 11in, the 22-year-old has in recent days been described as Britain's smallest crook, generating headlines around the world from India to Australia after being convicted of a series of burglaries close to his home in Walker, Newcastle.

Magistrates heard how Kildare, who has a rare genetic form of dwarfism called achon-droplasia, has been repeatedly used by gangs of housebreakers to enter small holes in derelict buildings to steal scrap metal – now commanding record prices.

In his defence he claimed that because of his medical condition he has been unable to work and was forced to resort to crime in order to make ends meet, insisting: "It's a tall man's world."

Kildare's lawyer Michael Crowe told Newcastle magistrates' court: "It is right to say he has been taken advantage of on occasion by others."

His client had entered a boarded-up council house through a low door panel. Kildare was discovered, much the worse for wear for drink – a problem exacerbated by his size – inside the premises by a security guard who called the police.

Officers spotted him when he poked his head back through the broken panel.

This week Kildare found himself back in court, this time after he was caught stealing a giant bag of sweets from a hospital. The court heard how he had climbed through a smashed window. He was eventually spotted at a bus stop holding the bag, which, it was pointed out, was nearly as big as he is. The media, of course, has been quick to spot the potential of the story. Kildare has learnt to live with TV crews and reporters parked outside the terraced house he shares with his mother – who also suffers from the condition – and his 11-year-old brother.

"I've never had any trouble growing up round here," he said yesterday. "I know everyone and everyone knows me. I know all the popular people from school so no one gives me any bother."

Despite his lawyer's protestations in court that he was the instrument of others, Kildare is adamant that everything he has done since getting involved in "scrapping" – stealing scrap metal – he has done of his own accord. "People are just twisting it – the newspapers have been making it up about me," he said.

"I did it of my own free will. The house was derelict and people never suspect me because of my condition."

The decline of shipbuilding at High Walker, once a bastion of Tyneside industry, has left the area with devastating legacies of unemployment and crime, though police say this is now falling. Joblessness is three-times the local average and much housing is poor and in urgent need of replacement.

Local people complain that youngsters terrorise older residents with many of them too frightened to leave their homes.

Kildare left Walker Technology College at the age of 15. He never went back to the school to collect his exam results. "I knew they would have been poor so I didn't bother," he said.

He has never had a job and says he doesn't want one, preferring to collect disability benefit. "I've got no ambitions. I just like hanging out with my mates." Local young men spend much of their lives here gathering and drinking outside the local taxi office. When he does venture into the outside world he is all too aware that he stands out. "I have been into Toon, the Bigg Market and all that and get people coming up to me – they want to shake my hand and I've had some drinks bought for me."

Locals regard him with affection. One neighbour said: "They've got it all wrong about him. He's hardly public enemy number one, he's a good lad."

But Kildare's mother, who refused to give her name, says she is ashamed of him. "I'm disgusted. I think he should be in prison for it," she said.

As for Kildare, the future looks bleak, as he is forced to spend the remaining summer nights indoors watching television. But he remains philosophical. "I'm not that bothered. I'll just have to stick it."