An assistant bank manager who stole pounds 94,000 from his branch before embarking on a seven-month odyssey across France was jailed for two years yesterday.
Ian Lumb was given the minimum sentence that could be handed down by Judge Michael Lever QC after a hushed courtroom was told that debt and depression had driven the Nat West employee to the brink of suicide.
While on the run last year, Lumb, 38, who worked at the bank's Deansgate branch in Bolton, Greater Manchester, apparently suffered a nervous breakdown, visiting places and restaurants where he and his wife, Susan, 33, had enjoyed happier times. He sent her and their two daughters photographs, letters, postcards and parcels containing pounds 55,000 from the money he stole.
He was finally persuaded to return to England when, having prepared a suicide cocktail of Pernod and paracetamol at an inn in Nantes, Brittany, he rang home two days before Christmas to hear his wife's voice one more time on the family answering machine. But his daughter Jenni, 13, answered and greeted his silence with the words: "Dad, if that's you, I love you. Don't hang up."
He stayed on the line long enough for Mrs Lumb, who had already received a letter saying he was going to kill himself, to persuade him to go home. After 266 days alone, he returned home on Boxing Day.
Bolton Crown Court was told that Lumb, who earned pounds 19,500 a year but owned a Lancashire home worth pounds 90,000, had run up pounds 130,000 in debts and poor investments without the knowledge of his wife. He had been under pressure for two years and believed he was about to lose his job when his superiors discovered his financial difficulties and told him they were "inappropriate" for a man in his position.
David Friesner, for the prosecution, told the court that on Friday, 13 May last year, as the bank was closing, Lumb took pounds 44,020 from a cash machine and another pounds 50,000, in three canvas bags, from a safe while a colleague was distracted. He had often joked to colleagues that one day he would "clear the bank out" but no one took him seriously.
He left the bank at 5.45pm, drove to Dover and got on a ferry to Calais that had been booked two days earlier. He threw the safe keys into the sea.
Mrs Lumb heard nothing for several months but in July her parents, George and Joan Clegg, were on holiday in the Loire when they discovered a parcel, letter and photographs from Lumb left next to their car. A note attached said: "Please don't open this parcel. It is very personal for my wife and children."
When Mrs Lumb opened it, she found pounds 24,000 in cash, letters, photographs and her husband's wedding, engagement and signet rings.
Over the following months, Mrs Lumb was sent sums of pounds 9,998 and pounds 7,000. The Post Office intercepted another parcel containing pounds 14,000 and Mr Friesner said police accepted that Lumb had posted a further pounds 10,000 to a bank colleague but it had been lost on the way.
The money was accompanied by a desperate paper trail of postcards and snapshots as Lumb re-visited the sites of previous family holidays across France. There was a photograph of a golf course where they had played together; a box of matches from their favourite hotel in Paris; there were letters from La Rochelle, Niort and Canet Plage, where the couple had spent their honeymoon 14 years earlier and from a caravan site on which they had stayed.
One photograph of a restaurant carried the message: "Cleggy [his nickname for his wife from her maiden name], this is where you ate the brain of something. I can't remember. Sheep?"
Another, on a photo of a restaurant in Etaples, said: "I had fish soup again!"
He remembered birthdays and sent Mrs Lumb flowers from Lyon on their wedding anniversary. He also visited La Baule, Nantes, Laval, Le Mans, Rouen, Angers, Avril, Vittel, Monte Carlo and Marseilles.
However, the signs of strain on his mental health were obvious; one card said simply: "Lost in France." Another said: "You're better off without me."
Mrs Lumb travelled to France and discovered that Lumb had spent much time in the lakeside town of Annecy, near Geneva, telling locals he was a divorce and had inherited the money he spent so freely. He became a regular and welcome sight in local bars and made many friends before vanishing again in August.
When he was arrested, Lumb told detectives: "The trouble is if you ask anyone at the bank or the golf club, they probably thought I was the most cheerful person they had ever seen. I appeared happy-go-lucky but that was just an outward appearance."
He said he had been thinking of fleeing for two years after his financial problems got on top of him but it was only at the last moment he knew he was actually going to take the money.
Philip Curran, for the defence, said Lumb's financial problems were the "trigger" to what happened. "On a day-to-day basis he was helping other people but he couldn't help himself," said Mr Curran.
Sentencing Lumb the judge said: "It must be true that your mind must have been in turmoil because of the illogicality of your actions - not simply disappearing with that money to live the life of an itinerant abroad, but having stolen such a large sum, to return it in the circumstances you did over such a long period of time."
After the hearing, John Potter, Lumb's solicitor, said: "He deeply regrets what has happened. He is very remorseful and wishes to apologise to customers at the bank, colleagues, and friends and relatives who have stood by him. In particular his wife and children, who have been most upset by what he has done." Mr Potter said Lumb, who pleaded guilty to theft, had repaid all but pounds 120 of the money he stole.