TWO ex-Warburtons employees and a former recycling boss were involved in a £500,000 stolen bread baskets scam, a court heard.

The trio were yesterday jailed for a total of 10 and a half years. Burnley Crown Court was told how Paul Rogers, 34, then a delivery driver for the family-owned company, and his then bakery boss, £29,000-a-year team manager, Robert Cooper, breached their bosses ' trust.

They stole at least 60 lorry loads of baskets leased by Warburtons - 150,000 in total - and sold them to PM Plastics in Sudellside Street, Darwen.

The pair had hatched the plot along with accomplice, father-of-three, Paul Matthews, the firm's owner, after Warburtons started recycling its bread baskets in November 2010 and a new universal basket was introduced by supplier Bakers Basco.

Rogers and Cooper, who had put suspicion on others by their thieving and led to Warburtons being investigated, helped themselves to bread baskets worth more than £560 000 to sell on for recycling and to line their own pockets.

Matthews, whose wife is a nurse, received and granulated 230 tonnes of £500-a-tonne-stolen baskets.

The 46-year-old of Jubilee Close, Darwen, had admitted the allegation.

He was jailed for three years. Former soldier and father-of-four Rogers, of Parkway, Rochdale, was locked up for 42 months, and Cooper, a 61-year-old grandfather of Winchester Way, Breightmet, Bolton, was sent down for four years.

They had denied conspiracy to steal from Bakers Basco during an earlier trial at Preston Crown Court - each blamed the other for the thefts - but had been convicted by a jury.

The operation was said to have netted more than £115,000 and the trio now face a proceeds of crime hearing.

They were all of good character. Prosecutor Nicholas Courtney told the court that between October 2011 and March 2012, almost 70 trips were made to PM Plastics on 39 days.

Rogers was the driver on all but one occasion.

The signature on the duty report was almost always Cooper's. From September 2011, Bakers Basco noticed a shortage of baskets, in particular in the north west of England. Warburtons appeared to have 90,000 baskets unaccounted for.

Mr Courtney said the exact number of baskets and associated dollies taken was impossible to calculate.

After the theft was discovered, Bakers Basco ordered 150,000 new baskets and 4,000 dollies to replenish their stock. Mr Courtney said: "The replacement cost for this came to £562,700.

However, Warburtons negotiated a settlement of £220,000." Mr Courtney told the hearing in March 2012, Bakers Basco received an anonymous phone call, telling them there was a large number of its baskets at PM Plastics.

Craig Hodges, a recovery investigator, went to the recycling firm a week later, saw the baskets and also some being chipped for recycling. He called the police.

The court was told Matthews was arrested and officers seized more than 5,340 baskets, three tonnes of chipped plastic and nuts, bolts and wheels.

Rogers and Cooper were later detained, Rogers at Warburtons and Cooper at home. Sentencing, Judge Simon Newell said: "This was a deliberate, significant, organised and professional conspiracy.”