'It may have been the end': £14k fraud by Northamptonshire Search & Rescue treasurer almost saw the charity fold

Northampton Crown Court
Northampton Crown Court

The former treasurer of Northamptonshire Search & Rescue almost caused the charity to fold as a result of fraud which saw him pocket almost £14,000.

Mark Weatherley was sentenced to two years in prison at Northampton Crown Court yesterday (December 8) after he pleaded guilty to three charges relating to fraud.

The court heard how between being voted onto the committee as treasurer in 2015 and being found out in April 2016, Weatherley failed to make any insurance payments for the charity leaving them in a position of high risk.

All the while the trustees were completely in the dark about the charity's precarious situation.

A spokesperson for Northamptonshire Search & Rescue said: "On behalf of Northamptonshire Search & Rescue, its trustees, committee and members, we are pleased the case is now concluded and sentencing has been passed.

"To have had virtually all the charity's funds stolen, over £13,500, we for some time believed it may have been the end of the search team.

"However, the team is more than a collection of people, we are a second family, we believe in each other, and trust each other with our lives, in some cases literally.

"This makes the betrayal by lies and deception all the worse.

Weatherley made 104 transactions from the charity's bank account to his personal and joint accounts, and disguised these payments by using references which made it seem as if he was paying insurers, repair companies and utility costs.

Prosecutor Priya Bakshi told the court that in November 2016 at the annual general meeting Weatherley was asked to provide information on the charity's finances.

He produced a fraudulent independent audit said to have been done by a Richard Wootton which showed a closing balance of £8,500. The charity's actual accounts stood at £230 and no independent audit was ever carried out.

Weatherley had forged the document and told the meeting he had worked for HSBC for nine years where Richard Wootton was an ex-colleague of his.

His fraud came to light in April 2017 when the charity contacted Weatherley to check if there were sufficient funds in the account to make a large purchase.

The item was bought and upon completion of the purchase a mini bank statement was printed which showed the balance of the account to be £300.

The trustees went to Natwest the next day and checked bank statements which showed the payment references used by Weatherley to disguise transfers to his personal account as insurance or utility bill payments.

Payments made from the charity's debit cards by Weatherley included purchases at Waitrose, Tesco and takeaway restaurants.

The charity had no insurance to recover the £13,965.22 loss incurred by Weatherley. It came close to being wound up but luckily found a private benefactor who gave the charity an interest-free loan, however, this will have to be paid back in the three years' time.

In mitigation, Ami Jones told the court her client was of previous good character, pleaded guilty, had immediately shown remorse during a police interview, and did not try to mitigate or deny any of it. She also said he was in a difficult financial situation at the time because of his son's health issues.

Miss Jones added her client was surprised the fraud went on for so long without discovery.

Sentencing Weatherley to two years imprisonment, Judge Michael Fowler said: “I have to say I found it hard to remember a meaner, more calculated and pernicious case than this.

“You were in a team by name that also by its nature is clearly bonded by a common aim to help the relatives and friends of vulnerable people who go missing, but also those vulnerable people themselves.”

He continues: “Within that team you were trusted with the finances and cannot have failed to understand how important that role was."

“What you were doing was betraying the other members of that team and jeopardising them," he added.

“The charity, fortunately, has been saved but the loss is one that remains.

“The loss that you have created is going to have to be found by other means.”

Northamptonshire Search & Rescue have set up a donation page.