A criminal gang which targeted a Sunderland pensioner in her own home and fleeced elderly victims out of tens of thousands of pounds was snared after an Echo story helped detectives piece together their ‘despicable’ actions.
Newcastle Crown Court heard the con artists, who claimed to be genuine builders and roofers, learned one of their crimes was being investigated when they looked up an article through via the Echo website on their mobile phone.
Northumbria Police had issued an appeal after widow Joan Barnett was pushed over in the kitchen of her home in Newlands Avenue, Tunstall, and left for 10 hours before a neighbour heard her cries for help.
She sustained serious fractures and died three months later, aged 87, because of complications caused by her injuries.
After three members of the gang were put behind bars yesterday - with another having died before facing justice and another still on the run - police revealed one of the men’s mobile phones showed they had accessed the Echo story.
Messages between some of the gang members on August 19, 2014 - the day after Mrs Barnett’s home was targeted - also prompted them to get rid of a van they were using, but police later used CCTV to link the vehicle to the men, who claimed to work for a company called Quality Roof Care.
Because this was a conspiracy and the victims, it was difficult to get evidence from them, it was a small piece of evidence which helped us corroborate the whole conspiracy.Detective Constable Simon Dobson
Hartlepool men Phillip Robert Orton, Lee Davidson and Scott Greathead, who also had victims police have been unable to trace, are now in jail as a result of Operation Korus, a two-year probe into the gang.
The “leader” of the gang, Michael Anthony Gales, 27, of Brenda Road in the town, is on the run and believed to be in Spain.
A bench warrant has been issued and he is to be sentenced once traced.
William Levi Gales, 44, of Borrowdale Street, Hartlepool, was charged with the manslaughter of Mrs Barnett, who had been a Wren in the services and worked in retail until her retirement, but he had subsequently died since court proceedings began.
The court heard other evidence linked to gang included a photo of a £50 note shared between them after they tricked another pensioner out of cash, as well as a video of them partying after taking hundreds of pounds for work they never carried out.
Another snippet of footage recorded unintentionally caught them talking to a man after they targeted his wife, who had dementia, praising him for driving a hard bargain when they called for cash they said she had promised them.
The court heard how an ex-miner and widower in his 70s was targeted in his Ryhope home.
It is said he was conned out of £27,600 - his life saving and an inheritance he hoped to leave his children and grandchildren.
His family told the court how the case had left him so unwell he is now in a care home.
The gang continued to try and get cash out of him even then his daughter found out about their claims of work and she demanded invoices for jobs.
Two other woman, a 78-year-old and an 84-year-old, both living in the same East Durham village, were also targeted, with the red Vauxhall Astra van, which had ladders on its roof, again linking them to the Wearside crimes.
A small piece of evidence which proved key
Detective Constable Simon Dobson, the leading officer in the case, today said the evidence involving the Echo’s story had helped tie the incidents together.
He added: “That’s something we would like to thank the Sunderland Echo for.
“The offenders accessed the Sunderland Echo website and looked at the article that reported on Joan Barnett.
“Because this was a conspiracy and because with the victims, it was difficult to get evidence from them, it was a small piece of evidence which helped us corroborate the whole conspiracy.”
The Echo’s managing editor Gavin Foster said: “This was a horrendous crime and we are delighted we were able to assist in bringing those responsible to justice.
“This once again highlights the importance of local newspapers and their place in the community and in the fight for justice.”
The court was told Mrs Barnett sustained a series of fractures when she was pushed by William Levi Gales after she found him rifling through a kitchen cupboard where £10,000 was hidden, when he had claimed he needed to use the toilet.
She never left hospital and died in November 2014 due to complications with her injuries.
All the men were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud and fraud by false representation.
Davidson, 30, of Chepstow Walk, was convicted after trial, and was given a five-year jail term.
He claimed he was on the “periphery” of the gang, but the court heard he had been a constant presence in the incidents.
Orton, 54, of Windemere Road, will serve three years and nine months behind bars.
The father-of-four played the part of vans driver and the alcoholic was often paid for his role in drink.
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, committed in May last year, while on bail for this offence.
He was involved the least, but made demanding calls to the Ryhope victim “badgering” him for money, say prosecutors.