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Banker stole $3m to buy rare birds

Gardiner spent 450,000 ($700,000) on exotic parrots.

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LONDON, England -- A British financial adviser who stole more than 2 million ($3.1 million) from elderly and vulnerable customers to buy a vast collection of rare birds has been sentenced to nine years in jail.

Lee Gardiner, 32, of Kent, southeast England, used his position at Lloyds TSB bank to take cash from customers' accounts.

He spent 450,000 ($700,000) on exotic parrots and bought a 450,000 four-bedroom house in which to keep his massive collection -- said to be one of the biggest in Britain.

Gardiner was caught when he transferred 928,000 ($1.45 million) into the account of his partner, Claire Richards, taking the total stolen to 2,172,432 ($3.4 million), Maidstone Crown Court heard Tuesday.

Judge Andrew Patience described Gardiner's conduct as "outrageous and disgraceful" and said his actions had undermined the public's confidence in banks.

Gardiner earlier had admitted to 24 counts of theft from customers of Lloyds TSB in Sevenoaks, Kent, between 1999 and 2002.

"You targeted 38 customers of the bank who were vulnerable in one way or another, being either single or elderly, sometimes disabled, and in all cases, of very limited financial awareness," the judge said.

Gardiner claimed he bought the birds as a form of distraction when his wife became depressed and his father was diagnosed with cancer.

Defense attorney David Lyons admitted his client's actions had amounted to a "gross and prolonged breach of trust."

"The money was not used for the high life. He did not gamble or spend the money on drugs or prostitutes," Lyons said.

Gardiner bought a Porsche but took it back because he felt uncomfortable driving it, Lyons said.

"Mr. Gardiner has thrown away his career, his good character and his liberty. He has been a complete fool. Building up a vast parrot collection smacks of obsession, but it was a distraction."

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