`Miss Marple' traps bogus aristocrats

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TWO ELDERLY brothers who adopted aristocratic titles and led extravagant lifestyles escaped prison yesterday for a fraud exposed by the amateur detective work of a retired social worker.

Walter Potter, 71, and his brother Raymond, 62, changed their names by deed poll to Lord Cranbrook and Viscount Cranbrook and took to wearing monocles. They drove a leased 1978 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, drank large quantities of champagne and boasted to neighbours that they had royal connections.

Yesterday both were placed on two years' probation by Truro Crown Court after pleading guilty to obtaining by deception property worth more than pounds 32,000. The brothers opened a string of credit accounts with local businesses after moving into the Cornish village of Constantine, near Helston, where they changed the name of their rented bungalow to Woodcray Manor.

It was there that they aroused the suspicions of the retired social worker, Ann Badger. They introduced themselves to her with the words: "We have extensive estates in Kent, don't you know?"

Miss Badger later said: "It was the most peculiar introduction. The next thing that attracted my attention was when they changed the sign on their house from Treviades Farm Bungalow to a very florid sign saying Woodcray Manor. I thought that was tremendously suspicious. They claimed to be intimate with the royals - all part of the deception, I suppose.

"I heard the wall of their bungalow was covered in photo-graphs of the Royal Family. One photograph was signed `To Walter and Ray, love Sarah'."

Miss Badger, a fan of detective novels, built up a file of evidence against the pair after making inquiries with Debrett's and writing to the real Earl of Cranbrook - the chairman of English Nature - at the House of Lords. She then passed her file to the police.

The deceptions relate to the brothers' acquisition of two American Express cards, a pounds 5,000 overdraft with Lloyds Bank and two British Telecom telephone lines. They asked for a series of other frauds totalling pounds 19,000 to be taken into account.

Philip Drinkwater, counsel for the defence, said: "One can only describe these men as living in a Walter Mitty world. Quite obviously the deceptions were not going to get them anywhere. They were never going to get away with it.

"They deluded themselves that if they moved down to Cornwall they could make a fresh start with a fresh identity. They wanted to open a B&B to make a substantial amount of money out of eclipse week. Clearly things went wrong." Mr Drinkwater said that the brothers were "full of remorse" for the distress that they had caused their victims.

Judge Jeffery Rucker told them: "There is no doubt at all that the crimes you committed were serious enough to merit prison. If you had been in better health and a little younger, you would be about to start a lengthy prison sentence."

The court was told that the pair were jailed for three years for deception offences in 1973 after trying to set up a small business. Counsel for the prosecution, Alison Crookes, said that they used the name of their dead housekeeper to install two telephone lines in their home. They could not use their own names because they owed large sums to British Telecom.

To obtain the pounds 5,000 overdraft, they told the bank manager that they owned their rented bungalow and had sold a hotel in York. Miss Crookes said the men had claimed that they were titled persons, had lived in Canada and had an income of pounds 20,000 a year. In fact, they were on benefits.

The other offences taken into consideration related to a pounds 1,170 bill for the funeral expenses of Christine Ball, their housekeeper, the acquisition of a pounds 2,500 television and video, and the printing of letterheads and business cards with their bogus titles.