A former West Bromwich Albion player descended from a Premier League career to breaking up stolen car parts in a rented scrapyard unit in just two years, a court has been told.
Police stumbled upon the operation of Ronnie Wallwork, 34, while investigating a string of unconnected armed robberies across Lancashire, one of which led to the shooting of a security guard.
The main targets of the North West Regional Crime Squad were career criminals Craig Bulger and Mark Cain - who shot the guard several times at a Tesco branch in Preston.
Bulger, 51, was tracked to a scrapyard in Manchester where Wallwork came to the attention of the authorities in 2010 as the site became the focus of heavy surveillance.
Earlier this year Wallwork, from Failsworth, pleaded guilty to three counts of receiving stolen goods but the full facts of the case only emerged today when his best friend, Siobhan Johnstone, went on trial over the matter.
A judge ordered a jury at Preston Crown Court to clear Johnstone, 34, of Newton Heath, of three counts of handling stolen goods after hearing the prosecution case against her.
Johnstone had sold a stolen Volkswagen Touran engine and car parts from a stolen BMW 318i on Ebay on behalf of Wallwork - described in court as her “lifelong friend”.
She had also allowed a stolen Mazda Furano, with no rear registration plate, to be parked on her driveway at the ex-footballer’s request.
When arrested she told detectives she had no knowledge of where the Mazda or the car parts had come from.
Wallwork, who represented England at Under-20 level, joined Manchester United as a trainee in 1993 but struggled to command a first team place and was loaned to a number of clubs before he joined West Bromwich Albion in 2002 where he was voted player of the year in the 2004-5 season.
He was later loaned to Bradford City, Barnsley and Huddersfield Town.
The court heard the VW Touran had been stolen from an address in Worsley, the BMW worth £15,000 from Wigan and the Mazda worth £16,000 from outside Nidd Vale garage in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
The red Mazda found its way to 10 Arches scrapyard where Wallwork was based the following day, the court heard.
Another man later drove the Mazda to Johnstone’s home in Askett Close while she was on holiday with Wallwork in Murcia, Spain.
Johnstone was arrested in January this year and told police she was merely doing a favour for someone she had known since childhood.
She told detectives: “I never thought that someone like my best mate would ever try anything like that on me.
“He is no gangster, no criminal. He is just proper dippy, You want to shake him some time.”
She said she had regularly helped him over the years and had sold other items on his behalf on eBay including some of his West Brom playing kit.
He had enjoyed a well-paid career as a professional footballer and had helped her live rent-free in a house for 12 months at the height of his career. Despite being in financial straits herself, she now helped out Wallwork who had also fallen on hard times.
Mark Rhind, defending Johnstone, said Wallwork came to the attention of the North West Regional Crime Squad during their investigation into a number of serious armed robberies across Lancashire.
He said: “The two main targets were Mark Cain and Craig Bulger, both with long criminal histories, both with previous convictions for robberies and both actively involved in 2010 in committing and surveying armed robberies. In one of those in Preston a security guard was shot.
“Both of these men received indeterminate sentences.”
Mr Rhind continued: “Mr Wallwork was involved in breaking stolen cars up and no doubt selling them on.
“He was a man who had some means but was now caught up in financial difficulties at the time of this investigation.”
Mr Rhind said Johnstone told detectives that Wallwork would, like her, tell the truth about the matter but he added that “rather gallantly” he made no comment in interview.
Wallwork is currently on bail and is due to be sentenced on December 5.