A Co Tyrone woman walked free from court with a suspended prison sentence after she admitted fleecing speculators and investors in the Spanish property market out of £200,000.
Bernadette McGeary (55), of Carntall Road, Dungannon, had pleaded guilty last month on the morning of her trial to eight counts of theft and one charge of obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception.
Prosecution counsel Frank O’Donoghue told Belfast Crown Court the money was given to her by members of her own family and also friends of her family to buy holiday homes in Spain and also to invest in the Spanish property market between March 2004 and May 2006.
One of these she took £7,000 off to invest in a property portfolio was a niece of the sisters in the Irish band The Corrs.
“She used their money as her own and the money was not used to purchase or invest in property portfolios for which the money had been provided to her,’’ he told Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland.
“It is fair to say that none of the money has been recovered by the police.’’
However, the prosecutor said police were satisfied that there was no evidence that McGeary had not personally profited from the theft of the money.
The court heard that fluent Spanish speaking McGeary had been in Spain for quite a number of years, running a translation service before delving into the property market, eventually setting up her own firm called ‘Geronimo’.
Mr O’Donoghue said that in 2006 one couple gave McGeary £60,000 to buy an apartment in Spain but it never materialised.
“Quite simply, this money was not used for the purchase of the property for which they were intended. Some of the money ended up in the accounts of the defendant’s siblings.”
Counsel told the court that another couple approached McGeary after she was recommended to them by a member of their family who had bought an apartment through her.
However, Mr O’Donoghue was said that after visiting in Spain and realising their investment had “turned sour”, they approached police.
The court heard that £35,000 was handed over by a relative of the defendant who was investing the money to purchase an apartment.
“That money was deposited into her account and it disappeared,’’ said the prosecuting counsel.
The court heard that another victim bought an apartment of McGeary unaware that there was still an outstanding mortgage on it.
Mr O’Donoghue said Mairead Stewart, who is a niece of the sisters in the band The Corrs, gave McGeary £7,000 to invest with the hope of a 40 per cent return on her investment.
“Suffice to say that money also disappeared,’’ the prosecutor told the court.
“The defendant held herself out to her own family and friends that she was someone they could trust in giving her money to invest and seek a return. That’s how they came to invest with her in the first place. She gained the trust of many people.
“There was clearly large amounts of money involved, just over £200,000, which were given to her over a significant period of time.
“There were many victims and some of those have lost their life savings.
“It is also correct to say that police have carried out a thorough research and there is no evidence that she has gained the trappings of wealth from these thefts.’’
Counsel added that when the property crash came in Spain, McGeary found herself “robbing Peter to pay Paul’’ over the money she had been given to invest until “there was no more money left in the kitty at all’’.
Defence counsel Greg Berry QC said McGeary had always intended to the invest her clients money in the purchase of apartments and also investing in property portfolios.
However, he said that she had become a victim of the “perfect storm’’ in Spain when it was hit by the property crash, changes in property law and also builders going into administration.
“That was the perfect storm in which she found herself in and there was no money left to invest.
“It was a bit like musical chairs because when the music stopped some people didn’t get a chair at all.
“She has no trappings of wealth. She made no financial gain out of this and she is now financially destitute.
“It is clear from the pre-sentence report that for her part she is embarrassed and remorseful for what happened,” added Mr Berry.
Belfast Recorder Judge McFarland said there were a number of aggravating factors in the case which included nine victims, the theft of over £200,000, and no possibility of recovering the money or restitution.
However, the judge said that he did not believe it was a breach of trust case as McGeary had no professional qualifications, was not a solicitor, an accountant or a banker.
Judge McFarland said that in mitigation he was taking into count her guilty plea “late as it was on the morning of the trial”.
The judge said that if her case had gone to trial “I have no doubt a jury would have convicted you”.
The Belfast Recorder said McGeary had a clear record and there was no evidence that she had gained a “lavish lifestyle” from the fraud.
“This was a fraud perpetrated against members of your own family and friends of your family. You had a legitimate intent at the outset of these transactions”.
However, Judge McFarland said Spain suffered in the property crash just like Northern Ireland and the Republic had also suffered.
“For these nine victims, once the music stopped there was no money left for them.”
McGeary was sentenced to two years in custody suspended for two years.
Judge McFarland said that he would not be making a compensation order as “you are clearly not in a position to pay”.