Couple jailed after firearm discovery

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A man and his partner, who had a photograph on her phone of him sniffing cocaine from the barrel of a sawn-off shotgun they had at their Rugby home, have both been jailed.

Stuart Cunningham had pleaded guilty at Warwick Crown Court to possessing a prohibited firearm with intent to endanger life and possessing ammunition when prohibited from doing so.

His partner Chelsea Gardner originally denied a charge of possessing a prohibited firearm, but changed her plea to guilty at a pre-trial hearing.

Cunningham, 32, of Montgomery Drive, Rugby, who accepted responsibility for the weapon, was jailed for ten years, and Gardner, 27, of the same address, was jailed for five years.

Prosecutor Amy Jackson said that in September last year Cunningham, who had a number of previous convictions for offences including assault and robbery, was released on licence from a six-month sentence.

But the following month there were matters the police wanted to speak to him about, and he was also wanted for recall to prison because he had breached his licence conditions.

Officers went to the couple’s address, and before they could even knock on the door, Cunningham was seen jumping from a first-floor window and making off, but was detained after a chase.

The police then went into the house, and in the rear bedroom, from which Cunningham had jumped, they saw five shotgun cartridges in a plastic bag on the windowsill.

“Officers turned to Miss Gardener and asked whether there was a firearm, and she directed them to the wardrobe.”

Under clothing in a drawer in the wardrobe, they found a bolt-action shotgun which had had both the barrel and the stock shortened.

And on Gardner’s phone was a photograph taken in the house of Cunningham inhaling cocaine from the barrel, and a text referring to other weapons including an SA80 assault rifle.

When they were interviewed Cunningham denied having any knowledge of the sawn-off shotgun, but Gardner said it had come to the address a couple of days earlier – but claimed she was there under duress and had no control over it.

Sophie Murray, for Cunningham, said: “He takes full responsibility for this weapon and for the fact that Miss Gardner was addicted to drugs. He says it’s entirely his fault where he has led her to be.

“She would not be here if it was not for him, and he deeply, deeply regrets that. He prevented her, through giving her drugs and taking her phone, from doing anything other than being in that accommodation with him.”

Turning to Cunningham himself, Miss Murray said: “He pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity. While on remand he has been able to get himself free of drugs.

“This entire period was motivated by his addiction to crack cocaine, and he thought of nothing other than where to get the next fix.

“He has accepted he will be in custody for a very long time, but asks Your Honour to take a merciful view of Miss Gardner and the situation he has put her in.”

And Andrew Tucker, for Gardner, said: “But for her relationship with Mr Cunningham, Chelsea Gardner would not be where she is today.”

Judge Andrew Lockhart QC commented: “Whatever view I take, the problem for her is the photograph on her phone of him with the firearm. She has taken a photograph and stored it on her phone of him with a prohibited weapon.”

Mr Tucker added: “My instructions are that she was not the person who took the photograph.”

And he submitted that the judge could find ‘exceptional circumstances’ not to impose the mandatory five-year sentence for possessing a prohibited firearm.

Jailing the couple, Judge Lockhart told Cunningham: “While on licence you came into possession of a sawn-off shotgun. It can have no lawful use. You held it with ammunition, and in your mind was an intent to endanger life.”

And he told Gardner: “It is clear to me you were in possession of this firearm, which was ready for use. There are photographs on your phone of Mr Cunningham with the gun, taking cocaine from it.”