HE was the epitome of elegance.

Utterly polite and dressed in a sharp pin stripe suit, shirt and tie with a pair of glasses to give that extra veneer of sophistication, Joseph Nti told staff at a Hampshire jewellers he had a budget of £10,000 to spend on an engagement ring.

Unsuspecting, they showed him three expensive rings worth almost £36,000 and even supplied him with an eye glass to inspect his potential purchase.

But then Nti grabbed the three gems and stopped to thank the assistant in the Southampton city centre shop before bolting out of the door.

Staff at the Picketts & Pursers shop in Above Bar and members of the public valiantly gave chase as the fugitive desperately discarded clothing to alter his appearance.

One of those have-a-go-heroes was Neil Francis who was on the opposite side of the road when he heard the manager shout for help.

As exclusively reported by the Daily Echo at the time, Mr Francis, 36, who was shopping on a day off from work. He joined the manager and another member of the public in the chase but lost him when he got to the Marlands car park.

At the time Mr Francis said: “I just did what I thought was the right thing to do. I think it is important to get involved at times like that, you just do it.”

He was eventually found, crouching bare-chested in a bush outside a toy shop but as he was approached, Nti yelled, “I’m going to hit you” before running off.

However, the trio did manage to retrieve some clothing which they believed the thief dropped during the pursuit and it was this vital piece of evidence that gave police the DNA evidence they needed to catch their man.

Duncan Milne, prosecuting at Southampton Crown Court, revealed the May 6 drama had been the latest in a series of raids Nti had carried out across the South of England. Each time he told unsuspecting staff he had money to spend, inherited from his late father.

But after being shown high value watches and jewellery, he would grab them and run off.

Nti was in reality a jobless father of three who had fallen into the grip of alcoholism and gambling.

He was eventually caught six weeks after the Southampton raid when he targeted a second outlet in a jewellery shop chain in London.

Polcie were called and Nti was chased before he was finally caught and told police: “I didn’t hurt anyone. I’m unemployed at the moment, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this. I’ve got a gambling problem.”

Nti, 33, of no fixed abode, admitted seven counts of theft and one of attempted theft involving property worth more than £160,000. The court heard none of the stolen property had been recovered.

In mitigation, Laura Plant described Nti as an intelligent and articulate person who had not intended to hurt or intimidate anyone and only wanted the best for his children.

He stole to feed his gambling addiction and was ashamed at what he had done.

However, jailing him for 40 months, Judge Peter Henry said: “This was not simply shoplifting. These were carefully planned and professionally executed.”