A HESWALL accountant stole from the funeral fund of soldiers risking their lives in Afghanistan to pay for £1,000-a-night prostitutes.
Captain Simon Mercer, 49, from Milner Road, took £21,000 raised from the sale of a rare painting recovered from the Royal Engineers' barracks.
The sappers organise bomb disposal teams and use the cash for training exercises and funeral expenses.
Mercer sobbed in court as he admitted “stealing from the boys in the regiment” and was jailed for 16 months.
Prosecutor Peter Zinner told Southwark Crown Court: “The Crown's case is that he stole £21,350 from The Royal Engineers Regiment of the British Army.”
Mercer earlier worked for the regular Army Pay Corps at Wimbish base, Saffron Walden, Essex, and had “significant understanding of accounting procedures.”
“Senior officers prior to 2009 had found within their Territorial Army accommodation at Catford, an extremely valuable painting,” Mr Zinner added.
“The painting is by Jasper Cropsey and was composed in 1862.
“The painting was sold in 2009 for £1.5m. and is now estimated to be worth £4.95m.
“It was in fact bought by a Microsoft executive.”
The artwork is a landscape by Cropsey titled 'Richmond Hill in the Summer of 1862'.
The money raised was invested in a “high interest investment account”, named 'The Richmond Hill Trust Fund' in tribute to the artist.
The fund yielded around £40,000 a year which was used by the regiment for trips, training exercises and emergency loans to allow Commonwealth soldiers to attend funerals at home, Mr Zinner said.
“The fund generated by that picture was of financial and emotional significance to the regiment,” said Mr Zinner.
“When the Territorial Army and the regular Army merger took place, so did their bank accounts.
“Mr Mercer was directed to close the Territorial Army and direct the interest payments to a central account.
'He did not do that. It was from that account that cheques were unlawfully written, to the amount written in the charge.”
By 2013, auditors realised that the account remained active and Mercer was arrested.
Mercer admitted the crime saying “he had succumbed to temptation” and said he felt he was “stealing from the boys of the regiment.”
“He volunteered he had spent the money predominantly on prostitutes, escorts and hotel rooms,” Mr Zinner added.
Although prostitutes normally cost around £100, he could spend “up to £1,000 on more high class escorts.”
“He stole the money while heavily intoxicated. But he knew the consequence would be 'the boys would go short'.”
Mr Zinner added: “The Royal Engineers are predominantly involved in explosive ordinance disposal.
“Many of their main roles are on the front line in Afghanistan and they are exposed to harm on a day-to-day basis.
“Bomb disposal personnel from Afghanistan have suffered significant loss of life and limb during the current campaign.”
Julian Young, defending said: “How said it is to see a man of 28 years’ service appear in the Crown Court.
“He has served in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Kosovo.
“There is an ability now to repay the compensation,” Mr Young said, accepting that a custodial sentence was inevitable.
Mercer fought back the tears in the dock as his family and former colleagues watched on sadly from the public gallery.
Sentencing him, Judge Alistair McCreath said: “You utterly recognise that this is for you and for many who are close to you a very sad day indeed.
“This money that you spent was intended to support soldiers and the money you stole you used for your own physical pleasure, namely by spending it on sex workers.”
“I recognise also that you are remorseful”, the judge added, noting “voluminous” references he had received from friends and colleagues.
Mercer, of Milner Road, Heswall, admitted stealing £21,350 from The Royal Engineers regiment.
The export of the painting was blocked and the artwork has had to stay in the London home of the Microsoft executive.