A MAN who used a highly-dangerous explosive gas to steal more than £300,000 by breaking open cash machines in an “audacious” series of raids has been jailed for four-and-a-half years.

James Whitlock, 32, was part of a gang of four men who targeted more than a dozen machines, mainly across north, east and south London.

The gang struck at businesses such as restaurants and convenience stores that had ATMs, between December 2015 and July 2016.

Operating in the middle of the night, they broke into the rear of the premises, before using oxygen-acetylene gas 'cutters' to break open the cash machine from inside the building.

In total the gang stole more than £300,000. On one occasion they set fire to the machine, and more than £40,000 worth of banknotes were destroyed.

Whitlock, formerly of Walton and Dunmow but now of Stapleford Close, Chelmsford, hit the national headlines when he escaped from Pentonville Prison in November while awaiting his court appearance.

He and another man evaded police for nearly a week during a manhunt focussing on Essex.

Whitlock and the other members of the gang admitted conspiracy to commit non-residential burglary but they also broke into at least four residential properties to steal high-value vehicles, which they would fit with false number plates and use to get to and from crime scenes.

On one occasion, they were confronted by a witness, who was chased away by members of the gang brandishing sticks.

DNA from tools left at the scene of one of the offences, as well as two of the vehicles used by the gang, was used to link the offences to the gang.

Officers from the Met's Flying Squad launched an investigation and quickly established a link between the raids.

The gang's final offence took place in Birmingham on July 30, 2016, where they unsuccessfully attempted to break into an ATM kept inside a pizza restaurant. The gang were arrested a short time later on the M6.

Sonny Hagland, 26, of Carnforth House, Petersfield Avenue, Harold Hill, was sentenced to five years.

Glenn Levi Friend, 26, of Barnfield Road, Belvedere, Kent, was sentenced to three years.

Callum Brown, 26, of High Street, Hornchurch was sentenced to 20 months, suspended for two years.

Det Con Lewis Sanderson, from the Met's Flying Squad, said: "These men have showed a callous disregard for the safety of others. It is sheer good fortune that no-one was injured - or worse - as a result of their actions.

"They caused significant damage to a number of small businesses who housed the ATMs on their premises, causing great inconvenience to the local community and huge cost and distress to the business owners themselves.

"I am pleased that today they have been jailed for a significant period of time, reflecting the seriousness of the offences."