A self-appointed caretaker who rifled through his absent neighbour’s post to siphon off more than £290,000 from his bank account over four years has been allowed to walk free from court.

John Charles Stalker, 52, claimed he became sick at the state of the abandoned flat below and at first started doing the gardening, tidying it up and paying the bills using £27,675 of his neighbour’s money.

But over the next four years, Stalker, who lives in Canbury Park Road, Kingston, but also rented out a property to tenants above the flat in Oxford Avenue, Wimbledon, withdrew £296,324 for himself by registering for online banking using Mr Elliott’s bank statements.

He even rented the flat out to unwitting tenants before he was finally discovered last April.

He escaped with a 24-month suspended prison sentence and was ordered to carry out 180 hours of unpaid work on Tuesday after his victim, John Elliott – who had not checked his bank account since 1997 – wrote to Kingston Crown Court asking for leniency.

Stalker has now repaid the money.

Defence counsel Timothy Greene said: “Mr Stalker became increasingly stressed.

“The smell from the property, the animals that were going into the property – it became more and more stressful. He knew about that money for years before he did anything. He did not do wrong in taking over the property.

“Mr Elliott is now the owner of a property for which he has not had to pay any money for renovating or maintaining. Mr Elliott is considerably better off by what has happened.”

Stalker, a father of two teenage sons, admitted two counts of fraud. A charge of renting out the flat to unwitting tenants and a third count of fraud were left to lie on file.

Judge Georgina Kent said: “The time came when you used the money for your own benefit and your own business needs.

“But I have given you credit for your guilty plea and the fact that this money has been returned. It is in the public interest to punish you in a constructive way.”

A neighbour in Oxford Avenue, who did not want to be named, said Stalker had introduced himself as the landlord of the downstairs flat.

She said: “I honestly thought he owned the place. The garden was completely overgrown. He would come and cut the grass and sort the back garden out. I think he put new windows in there too.

“It’s a bit sad really. Knowing this now, he was obviously trying to do everything he could to find the owner, but this property in Wimbledon was going to waste.”