A Cumbria fire service crew manager has been jailed for stealing more than £50,000 worth of vital kit from the brigade — including helmets and hose — and selling other equipment on eBay.
Carlisle Crown Court heard today how a sales manager alerted Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS) in May last year as COVID gripped the country, to the fact that respiratory items supplied by his company — including half-face masks — were listed for sale on the online auction site.
Telecoms data identified long-serving crew manager Michael Todhunter, now aged 50, as the owner and seller of the account in question. A probe revealed he had sold the CFRS products at a profit but no exact value was known.
When his home was searched last October, investigators found a £50,115 stash of equipment — much of it designed to protect colleagues and equip fire engines — in his garage. These included fire hose, defibrillators, protective clothing and footwear, thermal image cameras, search lamps, radios, axes, shovels, a sat nav and even hand sanitiser.
“The amount shocked members of the police and fire service who were in attendance to identify the items,” prosecutor Kim Whittlestone told the court.
“The eBay account of the defendant had been operating since 2002 and it is clear from the initial access to the site that items were being sold on a regular basis. The extent of what has been sold we are unable to say. But given the amount seized and the admissions by the defendant in interview this has been an ongoing enterprise for some considerable time.”
Todhunter, of Laureates Lane, Cockermouth, admitted two charges of theft and one fraud offence. One charge of theft spanned a period between 2003 and 2020 and his illegal acts had sparked a full internal review by the fire service, the court heard.
Far-reaching and still ongoing
In a statement, group manager Stuart Hook said the effects of Todhunter’s offending had been “far-reaching and are still ongoing”. There had been a significant financial cost to replace stolen items while colleagues felt “let down”.
The most negative effect, stated Mr Hook, had been the brigade’s ability to carry out certain functions. “Particularly at a time when items of PPE were hard to source due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which Mr Todhunter profiteered from,” he wrote. “Going on to steal and sell vital equipment which would have been sourced to protect his colleagues was particularly disappointing.”
The supplier which raised the issue had threatened to withdraw their service at a time when the entire country desperately needed suitable PPE equipment. Mr Hook added: “All the CFRS staff involved with retrieving this equipment, including myself, were speechless when they saw the amount that had been stolen.”
Sean Harkin, defending, said Todhunter was a man of positive good character who was first on the scene of the 2009 Cockermouth floods, and occupied a senior role in the aftermath of the Keswick school bus crash the following year. “He is sorry for what he has done,” said Mr Harkin. “He is somebody who has lost everything. He is ashamed.”
Judge Nicholas Barker jailed Todhunter for 16 months.
“The removal of these items did undermine the efforts of CFRS,” concluded Judge Barker. “That was at a time, in 2020, when the service was at its most needed, perhaps, because of the crisis that the country was experiencing.
“This was a determined campaign by you. This was no fleeting, opportunistic event that came and went. It was repeated.”
*First employed in 1990, Todhunter no longer works for CFRS.
A spokesman for Cumbria County Council said: “Mr Todhunter is no longer employed by Cumbria County Council’s fire and rescue service.
“His actions displayed an unacceptable breach of trust when he was placed in a position of responsibility, handling essential resources and personal protective equipment for our fire and rescue Service.
“We welcome this outcome today. Someone who puts greed and their own personal gain ahead of Cumbria’s communities at a time of crisis will not be tolerated.”