Stud manager 'swindled Stone out of £10,000'

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The Independent Culture

Charlie Watts, drummer with the Rolling Stones, was swindled out of almost £10,000 by the manager of his horse stud farm, a court heard yesterday.

The rock star, who is not due to give evidence, was not in court to see his wife Shirley testify against Paul Atkinson, who is accused of stealing the money from the Watts's Halsdon Arabian Stud in Devon.

Mr Atkinson, 49, of Riddlecombe, Devon, pleaded not guilty at Exeter Crown Court to five charges of stealing a total of £9,199 from the stud, near Winkleigh, between September 1997 and December 1998.

Mr Atkinson, an authority on Arabian horses, is accused of using the stud's bank and credit-card accounts to pay for athree-day hotel break, furnish his home with kitchen and bathroom appliances and carry out work on his land.

Mrs Watts hired Mr Atkinson in 1991 and they built up the Halsdon Arabian Stud from 12 horses to 150 in eight years, eventually occupying 500 acres of land near the Watts's home.

Mr Atkinson's wife Joan, 52, who became bookkeeper for the stud in 1994, had already pleaded guilty to the five charges faced by her husband, said Andrew Oldland, for the prosecution. He said the jury would have to consider whether Mr Atkinson was part of a joint enterprise to steal from the stud, and "was he in it with her?"

Mrs Watts said the Atkinsons lived rent-free at Halsdon Farm, a cottage she and her husband had built on their land. But, the court heard, the Atkinsons had set up their own farm a few miles away.

The Atkinsons had travelled abroad with her and her husband, Mrs Watts said. "We always travelled first class abroad on stud business." The bills were paid with their personal credit card, she said.

Mr Oldland said the couple's good treatment of the Atkinsons, and the trust they placed in them, were eventually abused.

Mrs Watts said Mr Atkinson was responsible for the finances and day-to-day running of the stud. "There were bank accounts and my husband and myself transferred money over when it was needed to top up the accounts."

In 1998 she became concerned at the rising costs of the stud. "It was costing more and I was not able to ascertain why. I would ask, but I could not get to the bottom of it," Mrs Watts told the court.

Mr Atkinson's attitude to the stud and its finances was "cavalier", she said, adding that it was difficult to get a financial statement from him. After meeting financial advisers in January 1999 she told Mr Atkinson the accounts would be looked at "very carefully".

He subsequently faxed her a letter of resignation, which was not accepted. Mrs Watts said, that Mr Atkinson and his wife were dismissed the following month. During 1998 Mr Atkinson had seemed "uninterested" in his job, Mrs Watts said, adding that his attitude had become "rather unkind in his treatment of me".

Cross-examined by Mr Roy Amlot QC, Mrs Watts accepted that the stud had grown but said it was because Mr Atkinson kept advising her to buy more horses. She said she had offered to do anything to reduce his workload. She said that despite accompanying him on several trips she did not consider him to be a friend.

Mr Amlot asked Mrs Watts if her husband had been less keen than she was to expand the stud. She replied: "No." He asked: "It costs a lot of money and your husband was providing the finance. He is a very wealthy man." She replied: "He was happy for me to have whatever I wanted so long as it could be managed."

The case continues.