AN ARMED gang who committed a series of terrifying robberies at convenience stores, a hotel and a travel agents has been sentenced to a total of more than 60 years behind bars.

John Hardy, who was on the run from prison at the time, and his fellow conspirators, dressed in balaclavas and armed themselves with an axe, knives and crowbar and, over a period of several weeks between November 2017 and February 2018, smashed their way into premises in Over Hulton, Worsley, Leigh, Astley, Boothstown, and Atherton.

The gang was targeting businesses to steal cash and cigarettes and netted a total of £16,000 worth of cigarettes and around £5,000 in cash, most of which was fenced by Horwich businessman Karl Crompton, who operates three convenience stores himself.

No one was physically harmed, but at one of the robberies, at the McColls store in Newbrook Road, Over Hulton, on November 7 2017, two female staff were so frightened as the robbers smashed their way into the building at 6am, that they fled the shop and scaled a six foot wall at the back of the property to escape. An ambulance had to be called after one of the women suffered a panic attack.

Police codenamed their investigation into the crimes Operation Miami, and linked the offences as one of the robbers wore a distinctive Gio-Goi jacket and the gang used a Jewsons builders’ bag to carry away the cigarettes and cash.

At Manchester Crown Court the gang was sentenced.

Robert White, aged 29, of Booth Road, Little Lever, and Kade Huddart, aged 20, of Rake Lane, Clifton had denied conspiracy to commit robbery but were convicted following a trial.

White was jailed for 16 years and Huddart was given 14 years and six months in a young offenders institute.

John Hardy, aged 29, of Trafford Drive, Little Hulton, was jailed for 13 years, Christopher Marsh, aged 36, of Hallview Way, Hindley, for eight years and one month and Dean Hampson, aged 40, of Parkway Grove, Little Hulton, for seven years and two months. All three had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery and Hampson also admitted dangerous driving.

Karl Crompton, aged 45, of Higherbrook Close, Horwich, pleaded guilty to handling stolen goods and he was sentenced to two years in prison.

Simon Driver, prosecuting, told Judge Michael Leeming that the gang had chosen "soft" targets of convenience stores and small businesses.

The court heard that the series of robberies was part of a 10 month period of 203 armed robberies which blighted the communities of Little Hulton, Bolton and Wigan from June 2017.

Mr Driver said the defendants in the dock had committed their crimes by making threats using a variety of weapons.

He said: "The gang used a screw driver, machetes, axes and sledgehammers together with verbal threats of violence to ensure that the staff complied with their demands.

"The gang were well drilled and conducted reconnaissance trips to the targeted premises in the days prior to the attacks."

Following the first raid on the McColl's store, carried out by Hardy and White, just five days later they were back at the same shop, taking more cigarettes and cash.

Their Honda Civic getaway car was found abandoned in Plodder Lane, with coins scattered nearby.

The following day they targeted another McColl's shop, this time in Walkden Road, Worsley.

But Hardy dropped his hat and DNA from it linked him to the crime.

The pair then robbed the Select and Save shop in Ennerdale Road, Astley, on November 15 2017 before Hardy joined up with Kade Huddart and others to rob the Worsley Service Station, Worsley on November 17.

They smashed their way into the building using an axe but Huddart, who was wearing blue latex gloves, accidentally lost the fingertips of them and forensic officers recovered his DNA.

Three days later Hardy, Huddart and Hampson robbed the Worsley Service station again and then, on the evening of November 27, Hardy and Hampson stole cash and cigarettes from Sainsbury's in Boothstown.

Judge Leeming praised witness Lee Whittaker, who helped catch some of the gang when he became suspicious of men in cars near Thomas Cook travel agents in Atherton, on January 29, 2018, and told police.

The final robbery involving Hampson, who acted as a driver, was at the Greyhound Hotel, Warrington Road, Leigh on February 8, 2018.

A member of staff was threatened with a crow bar before the gang ripped out the safe and stole the till.

The gang was caught later that morning when staff at the Russell James Estate agents in Worsley became suspicious of men in a Corsa near their office.

Judge Leeming was scathing of the gang members for their choice of targets.

"They are your local shops, part of your local community and you just don't care," he said.

"You are not intelligent enough to realise the damage you are causing to your community."

Five other men have previously been sentenced for their part in Operation Miami robberies.

Speaking after the latest sentencing, Det Sgt Richard Castley, of Greater Manchester Police's serious and organised crime group said: “This was a very complex investigation involving a large number of ongoing robberies being committed by violent groups of organised criminals.

“When offenders were arrested and sent to prison other members of the gangs would take their place and then continue their offending.

“As a result of the hard work of several specialist units within Greater Manchester Police the criminality was brought to an end.

“The sheer number of offences committed in a short time frame presented challenges that we were able to overcome.

“I’m proud to say that despite the gang’s organised and violent nature, these criminals were brought to justice.

“They’re now serving lengthy sentences and our streets are safer as a result.”