Three members of a gang who preyed on elderly and vulnerable people across the North East have today been put behind bars.
Sunderland pensioner Joan Barnett died months after an incident at her home in Newlands Avenue, Tunstall, Sunderland, when she suffered injuries when she was pushed over.
The 87-year-old could have been lying on the floor in agony for 10 hours before she was found on August 18, 2014.
She was one of four victims - including an elderly man from Ryhope who was tricked out of almost £30,000 in life savings meant for his family’s inheritance - who were targeted by Hartlepool men Phillip Robert Orton, Michael Anthony Gales, Lee Davidson and Scott Greathead - although police say there were other victims as well.
They operated under the pretence they worked for Quality Roof Care, a firm which did not exist, but appeared on business cards given to those who asked.
William Levi Gales, 44, of Borrowdale Street, Hartlepool, was charged with widower Mrs Barnett’s manslaughter, but has died since court proceedings began.
It has been utterly heartbreaking for the family and friends of Joan Barnett and all the other victims.Detective Inspector Dave English
He faced the charged after his DNA was found in widower Mrs Barnett’s kitchen after he tricked his way into the house by saying he needed the toilet as the gang knocked on the door.
The 86-year-old former retail worker and wartime member of the Wrens was pushed over when she confronted him as she found him searching in a kitchen cupboard.
Cases four victims were detailed in court, but police say they believe there are a number of other victims out there and have urged anyone who recognises the men and believes they too have been targeted to get in touch.
Newcastle Crown Court heard how mobile phone evidence was used to catch the gang, placing them at locations at times when people had been targeted, while calls helped link them to each other and incidents.
A photograph of a £50, said to have been fleeced out of a victim, was also shared among them, while a video of them partying after tricking a vulnerable pensioner out of cash was also found by police.
They were also traced through a red Vauxhall van they had used, with the vehicle then used as deposit to hire another vehicle when the realised police could tie them to incidents.
Christoper Knox, prosecuting, told the court: “The agreed to operate together has a group of fraudsters posing as builders and roofers and set out to defraud householders, but particularly old people.
“There is no evidence of them carrying out any bona fide work or notion this was a reputable builders, there is no evidence they were proper builders.”
The court heard Michael Gales, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud, the charge all the men faced, was the leader of the group, but is now on the run and believed to be in Spain, with his sentence adjourned until he can be traced.
Lee Davidson, who was convicted after a trial, continues to claim he was “very much on the periphery” and only offended during times when he was not in a genuine job.
In sentencing, Judge Paul Sloan QC detailed how he had called one victim seven times in an effort to prize money out of him, and evidence showed how he Michael Gales and Orton were consistently involved in the attacks.
Father-of-four Orton played the part of driver and owned the van, with his role often rewarded in payment of booze, as he is an alcoholic.
Greathead, who also put in a guilty plea, was found to make a number of calls “badgering” a victim to pass on cash.
Judge Sloan told them: “These were despicable cases of criminal conduct.
“It was planned and premeditated and used a fraudulent enterprise.
“It involved sophistication to change transport in order to avoid detection.”
Detective Inspector Dave English, who led the investigation, praised the bravery of the victims and families and warns that offenders will be put before the courts.
He said the cons were a “heinous” and said officers would go to great lengths to support anyone who came forward to say they too were hit by the group.
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.
However, one of the men, Michael Gales, 27, of Brenda Road, failed to appear at court and sentence in his case was adjourned while a bench warrant has been issued. The court heard it is believed he may be in Spain.
Davidson, 30, of Chepstow Walk, was given a five-year jail term.
Orton, 54, of Windemere Road, will serve three years and ninth months behind bars.
Greathead, 24, of Southburn Terrace, was told he will serve two-and-a-half years. This will run consecutively to a three-year sentence he is currently serving for robbery, commited in May last year, whilst on bail for this offence.
Det Insp English added: “In another case, they actually drove the victim to the bank to withdraw cash. This is just one of the measures these criminals will go to.
“They have travelled all around the North East taking advantage of vulnerable people for their own financial gain.
“I would urge anyone to be mindful of anyone who comes to your door asking for money, offering to carry out work or finding any reason to gain access to your house.
“Any genuine caller or salesperson will be happy to show you ID and return at a later date once you have been able to check their authenticity.
“We are absolutely committed to stopping these criminals and we will work tirelessly to protect those most vulnerable in our communities.
“Victims are our absolute priority and we will continue to work closely with them to help prevent repeat incidents and take action on those who commit these offences.
“These men preyed on vulnerable people and there may be other victims out there who may feel too embarrassed to come forward or haven’t realised they have been targeted.
“I would urge anyone who recognises these men and believe may have fallen victim to them should contact police.”
A neighbour of Mrs Barnett said: “Joan was a strong and independent woman as well as kind and generous.
“I had known Joan for about 15 years and had become and unofficial grandparent to my children.
“She loved children and she would always give them presents for Christmases and birthdays.
“After the incident in August 2014, we would visit her in hospital but she seemed to have lost all interest in life.
“She was no longer the chatty, happy person I had come to know over the years. Joan’s death was upsetting and shocking to the whole of our community so we all came together to give her the funeral she deserved.
“This has had a huge impact on us all in the community. “