'Reformed' teenage burglar who was given a free flat is back in police custody

'One-man crime wave' shown leniency by a judge is arrested and questioned over theft of Porsche

A prolific teenage thief, who confessed to almost 700 burglaries but was given a rent-free flat instead of a prison sentence, was back in custody last night after he was arrested by police investigating the theft of a Porsche.

In an arrangement that was described as "unique", Bradley Wernham, 18, was given the chance to turn his back on his reputation as a "one-man crime wave" when a crown court judge spared him jail in October. He admitted 20 burglaries and then asked for another 640 cases from across Essex running back over six years to be taken into consideration.

Despite the confession making him a strong contender for the title of Britain's most prolific burglar, the trial judge, Christopher Ball, QC, ordered him to do just 150 hours of community service and to keep to a curfew. Critics attacked the decision as a "joke" and "incredibly lenient".

As part of the deal that secured his release, he was given a flat, paid for by Essex police and social services in Chelmsford, to share with his girlfriend, and was ordered to stay away from his home town, Harlow, where scores of his burglaries took place.

Last night, however, it was revealed that Wernham was being questioned by Hertfordshire police investigating new allegations of a stolen car and breach of court orders. He was arrested by Essex police on Friday and transferred to the neighbouring force. A second man has also been arrested.

When he delivered his surprise verdict at Chelmsford Crown Court, Judge Ball told Wernham that "we are holding our breaths" and said it was a "wholly exceptional" case.

"To find someone who owns up to over 640 offences covering a six-year period whilst he has another 20-odd before court is a very, very unusual situation. It comes about because you are beginning to grow up and seem determined to stop, and because you assisted the police over a long period of time," Judge Ball said.

Police backed the sentence, and senior officers said they were convinced Wernham was ready to turn over a new leaf, agreeing to visit him at the Chelmsford flat twice a week.

The deal met with widespread condemnation. Chelmsford's Conservative MP, Simon Burns, wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, to protest, describing the sentence as "incredibly lenient". "It is misguided do-gooding philosophy when a custodial sentence would have been more appropriate," he said.

Detectives were able to close the case on a backlog of unsolved burglaries, and Wernham claimed he had given up the life of crime he had begun when he was just 12. His thefts included prising thousands of pounds out of pub fruit machines, breaking into churches and targeting expensive cars.

Hardly any of the goods stolen were retrieved and after he was sentenced victims spoke of their disgust. One man who believed Wernham had stolen from him said in a letter to a local newspaper: "I am outraged by the 'slap on the wrist' this person has received. What the hell are Essex police doing? He takes £17,000 of my property – none of which has been recovered, I might add – and this is his reward. This person should be in prison, no ifs, no buts."

Burglary victims were sent letters telling them their cases had been closed. Essex police said yesterday they could not comment on individual cases.