A FORMER firefighter who stole 185 drain covers from Worcestershire roads to feed his drug and gambling habits has been sent to prison.

Replacements for covers stolen by 27-year-old Graham Leith have cost Worcestershire County Council more than £45,000, Worcester Crown Court was told.

Recorder John Steel QC said it was fortunate no one had been seriously injured by holes which suddenly appeared at the roadside. Leith, of High Street, Studley, Warwickshire, who pleaded guilty to six thefts and converting criminal property, was in the fire service for six years before losing his job because of a conviction for making off without payment and stealing a number plate.

Prosecutor Jane Sarginson said the thefts were carried out during a well-planned operation, with Leith checking AA routes and addresses for scrap metal merchants in the West Midlands before hiring vans and setting out on early-morning expeditions. Martin Butterworth, defending, described the thefts as low-grade, with an average of £10 being paid for each drain cover.

Leith, who was arrested after being caught on CCTV, was short of money after he lost his job and needed cash to pay for his cannabis addiction.

Sentencing Leith to three-and-a-half years in prison, the Recorder said his actions had been reckless and created hazards on roadways. More than 1,000 drain covers had been stolen between September 2011 and January last year, with the replacement value of £261,500 falling on the taxpayer, the Recorder said, with 51,000 smaller gully covers stolen mainly in the Redditch and Bromsgrove areas.

He praised members of the public whose vigilance had helped to catch Leith and to the police.