A FINANCIAL adviser who stole almost £500,000 from clients who trusted him to invest their life savings has been jailed for four years.

Kevan Berry sought to become friends with his five victims, who are from across East Lancashire, by gaining their trust through his job at Briercliffe-based Bowland Financial Management.

His dishonesty grew over six years as he stole increasing amounts of cash to keep his mother and his ex and current wives living a comfortable lifestyle, Preston Crown Court heard. Berry, 41, tried to cover his tracks and recoup the cash with risky investments and gambled on horses as a last resort before trying to kill himself, the court was told.

Judge Peter Openshaw QC, recorder of Preston blamed Berry, who pleaded guilty to 11 theft-related offences, for the plight of Bowland Financial Management, which has since gone into liquidation.

And he said: "It is important to state that those who have been affected, in my judgement, were hard working people who wanted their life-savings to be invested securely.

"They trusted him and thought their money was safe wife him.

"The defendant will never be employed in a position of trust again and may never again secure employment of any kind."

Police welcomed the sentence. DC Paul Hanson, of Burnley CID, said: "The crimes caused great distress to the victims and this was as severe a breach of trust as you can imagine."

The court heard:

Mr Lesley Stephenson, from Burnley, lost £85,000, the majority of which was compensation he received in 1996 after a road traffic accident.

Mr Thomas Turnbull, from the Ribble Valley, was shown false documents of a £201,103 'investment', cash Berry had stolen.

Mr Jim Hurley, from Blackburn, had £170,149 stolen after Berry persuaded him to reinvest £750,000.

Mr Kenneth Buffy, from Burnley, trusted Berry to invest £7,500 in company shares.

Mrs Sylvia Spedding, from Burnley, had been on holiday to Thailand with Berry in March 2000 -- two years after he had stolen £10,000.

Police have not been able to trace the stolen cash and suspect it has all been spent.

Mr Tony Cross, defending, said that Berry came from a modest background and worked in a mundane job for Scottish Widows after leaving school aged 18.

But Berry, of Mercia Street, Bolton, met representatives from Bowland at a sportsman's dinner in 1990 and soon started work for the company.

Mr Cross said: "He began to move in another world.

"He was anxious to promote himself and his family within that business and social environment.

"He realised in a short space of time that he could not live the life others were living."

He said Berry, formerly of Barrowford, first began stealing in 1996, as he sought to ensure his three families all lived well.

He targeted clients he had represented since his early days at Bowland and persuaded them to re-invest their cash through him.

But instead he transferred it into accounts set up in the names of his mother-in-law, mother and wife.

Berry told clients he was paying them interest on their investments, when in effect it was small amounts of their own money being transferred back from his accounts.

Berry even falsified signatures to make large withdrawals.

When he was charged with the four counts of procuring an execution of valuable security, six of theft and one of attempted theft, Berry told police: "I want to apologise to everyone.

"I never intended for anything like this and got myself in a situation I could not get out of."