THREE men involved in a ruthless 'campaign of crime', involving targeting shops, garages and houses, were together put behind bars for a total of 23 years today, Friday.

The offences spanned a month and culminated in a terrifying robbery involving a petrified 67-year-old woman assistant at a petrol station.

Liverpool Crown Court heard that the gang went out with a 'burglar’s kit' and used two cars stolen in burglaries to carry out other raids to steal cash and cigarettes.

They fled in one of the vehicles, a high powered Alfa Romeo sports car, after the Hindley robbery and reached 130mph before piling out and trying to escape.

The car driver, Scott Bennett, aged 26, of Hope Street, Leigh and Christopher Molyneux, also 26, of Rugby Road, Leigh, were both jailed for nine years and Stephen Grimshaw was sentenced to five years.

The trio all admitted conspiracy to burgle, though they were not all involved in every incident. Bennett and Molyneux also admitted robbery and handling and Bennett pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and was disqualified from driving for four years.

Grimshaw, aged 29, of Burns Avenue, Leigh, only pleaded guilty to the conspiracy but admitted being in breach of suspended sentence for burglary.

Jailing them Judge Brian Lewis said that the offences 'represented serious professional crime showing complete disregard for the economic loss and damage to businesses struggling in hard economic times'.

Andrew Ford, prosecuting, said: “It was ruthless determined crime over a month”.

The offences began on July 10 last year when a Toyota was stolen in a hook and cane burglary in Leigh, at which time Molyneux was in prison.

Having changed the registration plates it was used in a raid on Landside wine store in Leigh on July 23, by which time Molyneux had been released. The shutters were forced open and £3,300 worth of cigarettes were stolen.

When that car was later recovered it was found to contain 'a burglar’s kit, a well organised collection of tools for attacking premises'.

On August 3 a silver Alfa Romeo sports car was stolen from a house in Bromley Drive, Leigh and after the registration plates were changed it was used in a”crime spree”, said Mr Ford.

This started on August 5 with two balaclavere dmen using a pick axe to try to force shutters at the Co-Op in Astley and then ten minutes later a householder spotted them eyeing up his home and they fled when he yelled at them. Less than an hours later they struck at another Co-Op premises in Asley.

Two days later in the early hours of the morning the gang raided a newsagent’s shop in Culcheth and stole £2,800 worth of cigarettes, £100 worth of stamps and £250 cash and then tried to break into nearby Sainsbury’s.

They returned the next night and again broke into the newsagents, this time getting away with cash and property totalling more than £2,500.

As happened in other raids they used a quilt cover to carry out their loot, a method both Grimshaw and Molyneux had used in offences for which they had previously been jailed.

The court heard that on August 10 Bennett sent a text to his mother boasting that tomorrow was 'the big one'.

The next day he and Molyneux went to B&Q and bought a crowbar and sledgehammer and within six hours used them to attack the supermarket again but after failing to get in went the Swan garage in Hindley and after forcing up the shutters 'literally smashed their way in through the glass door'.

They fled, after causing £3,000 worth of damage, with £3,000 worth of cigarettes and drove to Asda in Leigh and tried to force open the fire door by the cash machine but failed.

Shortly after 3am they were in Lowton and Bennett’s footprint was later discovered on a wheelie bin he had stood on while trying to break into a shop.

Their spree culminated at 3.25am with a robbery when they drove onto the brightly lit forecourt of the Texaco garage on Atherton Road, Hindley.

Grimshaw stayed in the car while his masked companions banged on the glass but the female assistant bravely refused to let them in.

However they smashed their way in and one grabbed her by the hair or neck and forced her to the back office ordering her to open the safe but she did not have the code. They used a quilt cover to make off with £300 from the till float.

A couple living nearby witnessed the robbery from their home and saw the hapless assistant cowering while Molyneux held a bar over her head.

“We could not believe the level of aggression shown towards the old lady. It was disgusting,” they stated.

The trio fled from the scene, with Bennett driving, and a lengthy high speed police chase followed along the East Lancs Road and an A road with Bennett reaching 130mph.

When they reached a roundabout Grimshaw, who was carrying the sledgehammer, bailed out and Molyneux also jumped out and ran off with a machete.

Bennett sped off but stopped nearby and ran off. Grimshaw and Bennett ran off through woods and Grimshaw waded through a canal and was caught soaking wet. The police helicopter was overhead and Molyneux and Bennett were also arrested.

After the hearing Dt Sgt John Davies, from Greater Manchester Police, said: "GMP are satisfied with the sentences handed out today and thank all the witnesses who have come forward during this investigation for the support they have given.”