Published: 12:00, 16 December 2013
| Updated: 12:43, 16 December 2013
Four bragging robbers who set up a Blackberry Messenger group called Armed Robbers and filmed 'selfies' posing with a handgun have been jailed for a total of more than 40 years.
One even donned pyjama bottoms with cartoon sheep on during a raid, and kept a picture of himself on his phone wearing the same trousers.
Maidstone Crown Court heard the masked men armed themselves with a starter pistol, replica revolver, kitchen and carving knives to carry out a string of raids at newsagents and convenience stores in Biggin Hill, Chatham, Dover, Gravesend and Larkfield in 2011 and 2012.
Wearing balaclavas and overalls, they terrorised staff to steal money, cigarettes, stamps and scratchcards totalling £28,124.
However, an attempted robbery at a champion dog breeder's home in Lincolnshire was foiled when the breeders' daughter refused to give in to what were described by the judge as their "cowardly demands".
On more than one occasion she batted a pistol away when it was pointed close to her head, and she has now been recognised for her bravery and awarded £250.
A cashier at another raid in Eastbourne was pregnant at the time and subsequently suffered complications in her pregnancy as a result of stress.
Jailing the four robbers at hearings held today and on Friday, Judge David Griffith-Jones QC said they had carried out their raids with a "somewhat cavalier attitude" and in an "amateurish fashion".
In particular, he said the attempted robbery in Lincolnshire would have been "comical" if it had not been so serious an offence.
Thomas Balderston, 24, of Ernest Road, Chatham, was jailed for 16 years and 23-year-old Christopher Aldred, of Mayford Road, Chatham, was jailed for 13 years.
Both denied conspiracy to rob and conspiracy to carry an imitation firearm with intent to commit robbery but were convicted by a jury following a trial in October.
Christopher Heath, 31, and 24-year-old Terry Sullivan, both also of Ernest Road, were jailed for six years, and five years and four months respectively.
The pair had admitted the charges and gave evidence for the prosecution.
It was when police swooped on Sullivan's home that they found pictures of him on his mobile phone posing in the cartoon pyjamas.
Passing sentence, Judge Griffith-Jones said father-of-three Balderston, had, once "corrupted" by Sullivan, become an "eager disciple" who wanted to "enrich" his life both financially and in his image to others.
"Having been introduced to this kind of offending you proceeded to play a full and enthusiastic part in what then followed," added the judge.
"You became smitten by what you thought their (Heath and Sullivan) criminal pedigree might offer you and you wanted more.
"You saw this as an easy way of making money and Sullivan and Heath were ready to take advantage of what you had to offer.
"You became a main motivating factor behind this conspiracy, driving you and your colleagues on to further offending and playing a leading role in identifying suitable targets."
The court heard that Balderston was initially arrested after the first raid in November 2011, only to be released without charge.
"Sadly, you didn't learn your lesson from that," continued Judge Griffith-Jones. "As the dust settled you arrogantly came to believe you had got away with it, even to the point of bragging to your neighbour."
Aldred, said the judge, was a "follower rather than leader". But he said it was with "surprise and regret" that a man in a steady job as a bookbinder and in a stable relationship allowed himself to become involved with the others.
"You were not one of the ringleaders but then, having been recruited by your friend, Thomas Balderston, and for reasons only you can explain, you became an enthusiastic participant, often making your home available for the sharing of spoils.
"You never carried a gun but you were well aware of the weapons being carried by others."
The court heard that Heath and Sullivan had previous convictions for firearm and robbery offences.
However, their sentences were significantly reduced in light of their guilty pleas and assistance to the prosecution.
"You became a main motivating factor behind this conspiracy, driving you and your colleagues on to further offending and playing a leading role in identifying suitable targets" - Judge Griffith-Jones of Thomas Balderston
All the men will serve half their sentences, less time spent on remand or tagged curfew.
The robberies occurred at a Co-op in Pattens, Lane, Chatham, on November 3, 2011; McColl's newsagents in Biggin Hill on April 30, 2012; the Co-op store in Lower Road, River, near Dover, on May 4 last year; another branch of McColl's in Holly Place, Eastbourne, on May 10; Martin's newsagents in Martin Square, Larkfield, on May 18; McColl's in Admirals Walk, Lordswood, on May 29, and McColl's in The Alma, Gravesend, on June 5.
Just hours earlier they had bungled the raid at Sealaville House in Wrangle, Boston, Lincolnshire, owned by British bulldog breeders, Paul and Hayley Seal.
It was their daughter, Toni, who repeatedly frustrated their attempts, fighting them off and forcing them to flee empty-handed.