A WOULD-be Greenock thief tried to steal a police van whilst tooled-up with wire cutters and screwdrivers — then claimed he thought it was a TAXI.

Kevin McAuley was spotted 'fidgeting' around the steering column of the Ford Transit after officers were called to a late-night disturbance.

Police had come out of a property on Wren Road at nearly midnight to find a van door open and McAuley perched on the driver's seat.

A male PC told the sheriff court: "I thought he was trying to hotwire the vehicle.

"His hands were below the steering wheel and he seemed to be fidgeting around the steering column area.

"The male stepped out of the vehicle and said he'd made a mistake and had thought it was a taxi."

Police had been called after trouble flared at a wake following the funeral of 37-year-old McAuley's younger cousin, the court was told.

A small pouch containing two sets of wire cutters and four screwdrivers was recovered from a rucksack he had with him.

McAuley told the court he'd been working as a cleaner at Aulds bakery at the time of the incident and used the toolkit for taking machines apart for cleaning.

Asked by defence lawyer Aidan Gallagher why he got into the police van, he replied: "I wasn't paying attention, my head was somewhere else, due to intoxication and the situation.

"When I got in I thought it was a taxi."

Asked by Mr Gallagher if he intended to steal the van, he said: "I can't drive."

Prosecutor Lindy Scaife put it to McAuley: "This is a big white police van, with police livery and blue lights on its roof — how could you possibly mistake it for a taxi?"

McAuley replied: "I'd had too much to drink."

Ms Scaife asked: "Did you not notice the big steering wheel in front of you?"

McAuley responded: "No, I was looking for my keys."

The van had been left unlocked as officers rushed to the house in a bid to calm the disturbance as quickly as possible, the court heard.

A succession of officers testified that McAuley did not appear to be intoxicated to any great extent.

Summing up the case, fiscal depute Ms Scaife said: "Opportunity presented itself, two police officers formed the opinion from the accused's actions that he was attempting to steal the vehicle, and lo and behold back at the station he is found with a toolkit that would assist him in that endeavour.

"His response that he thought it was a taxi is wholly implausible."

McAuley, of Gael Street, was formally found guilty of entering the driver's seat of a marked police van and attempting to tamper with the ignition whilst having a quantity of screwdrivers and wire cutters in his possession, and attempting to steal the van.

Sheriff Michael Higgins fined him £500 over the June 23 offence.

Sheriff Higgins told McAuley: "I reject your evidence and version of events.

"I do not find it credible or believable."