Police today praised the bravery of elderly victims and families who helped put a gang of conmen behind bars for more than 11 years.
Hartlepool men Phillip Robert Orton, Lee Davidson and Scott Greathead have been jailed, and a manhunt has been launched for a fourth man who is believed to have fled to Spain.
Joan Barnett died months after an incident at her home in Newlands Avenue, Sunderland, after she suffered injuries when she was pushed over.
She was one of four victims - including an elderly man from Ryhope, Sunderland, who was tricked out of almost £30,000 in life savings meant for his family’s inheritance.
Two other women, aged 78 and 84, both living in the same East Durham village, were also targeted.
Mrs Barnett, 87, could have been lying on the floor in agony for 10 hours before she was found on August 18, 2014.
William Levi Gales, 44, of Borrowdale Street, Hartlepool, was charged with Mrs Barnett’s manslaughter, but he has died since court proceedings began.
Detective Inspector Dave English, who led the investigation into the gang who were jailed today, praised the bravery of the victims and families.
He said: “This has been a tragic case for all involved. A woman has lost her life and the other victims have lost thousands of pounds.
“It has been utterly heartbreaking for the family and friends of Joan Barnett and all the other victims. I’m sure many people will empathise with their loss.
“All families involved have remained dignified throughout this investigation and their contribution and support has been invaluable.
“Preying on vulnerable and elderly people is sickening. These men targeted residents across the North East, using persuasive and aggressive techniques to urge their victims to pay them money for work that had not been carried out.
“These men were finding any excuse to get into victims’ houses and in the case of Joan Barnett, this is what subsequently led to her death after she was pushed to the floor and left to suffer for hours.”
All four men were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and fraud by false representation.