AN ESSEX man who used a highly-dangerous explosive gas to steal more than £300,000 by breaking open cash machines in an “audacious” series of raids has been jailed for four-and-a-half years.

James Whitlock, 32, was part of a gang of four men who targeted more than a dozen machines, mainly across north, east and south London.

The gang struck at businesses such as restaurants and convenience stores that had ATMs, between December 2015 and July 2016.

Operating in the middle of the night, they broke into the rear of the premises, before using oxygen-acetylene gas ‘cutters’ to break open the cash machine from inside the building.

In total the gang stole more than £300,000. On one occasion they set fire to the machine, and more than £40,000 worth of banknotes were destroyed.

Whitlock, of Stapleford Close, Chelmsford, hit the national headlines when he escaped from Pentonville Prison in November while awaiting his court appearance.

He evaded capture for nearly a week.

Three other men were jailed for a total of eight years and 20 months.