A case of criminal ineptitude

They thought crime would bring them money and status, but Leslie Cairns and his gang were more like clowns than con artists
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ever since Leslie Cairns failed to qualify as an accountant, he has craved respectability as a businessman. Now he faces seven years in prison for playing the part of Mr Big, in charge of a gang of incompetent crooks who carried out a £3m fraud, which failed to make a single penny of profit.

Detectives in the case have compared the ageing gang members – a teacher, an insurance broker and two high-street solicitors – to characters in The Lavender Hill Mob, the Ealing comedy of blundering criminals, starring Alec Guinness. Like Guinness's scheming character in the 1940s film, Leslie Cairns controlled the gang by exploiting each of their weaknesses.

Their bizarre exploits in the world of white-collar crime only emerged this week through the Serious Fraud Office, after reporting restrictions on the Old Bailey trial were lifted. The founding relationship in the gang of washed-up professionals was between Cairns and a disillusioned schoolteacher called David Sergeant. Sergeant had left teaching to take up unarmed bank robbery. But after conducting two successful post-office hold-ups, he developed a guilty conscience and surrendered himself to his local police station.

It was in prison that he met Cairns, who was able to persuade him to return to a life of crime because, Cairns promised, his plans for instant wealth involved no threats to elderly postmasters and posed no danger to the public.

At the trial, the jury was told how Sergeant used to push Cairns around the prison in a wheelbarrow, because Cairns suffered from gout, which made walking painful.

When they met again, outside prison, Cairns made sure Sergeant would join the gang as his trusted lieutenant and batman. Later, when the pair had reached the heights of their criminal activity, Cairns would sit reading the Financial Times in the back of an expensive executive car, with Sergeant at the wheel.

Their grand plan was to set up "shell", or worthless, companies by using forged balance sheets to purchase bona fide businesses and create a wealthy corporation of small companies. But Cairns, who had failed his accountancy exams, was not blessed with any business acumen, and each investment turned to financial ruin. The Old Bailey judge who sentenced the men earlier this year described the businesses acquired by the gang as an "empire built on sand, which all ended with the receivers moving in".

The leading detective in the case, Detective Inspector Alan Sykes, now retired, acknowledges that there was a comical aspect to the gang's preposterous self-belief – they thought they would make their fortunes by conning small businessmen out of their companies. But the reality was that hundreds of people lost their jobs.

Just months after they had fraudulently acquired a Barnsley road-haulage company, it collapsed, and around 200 staff had to be laid off. When Cairns switched his interest to the commercial-property market, his choice of real estate proved equally ill-informed, and the gang found itself in possession of offices in a district of Sheffield that was known by local people to be blighted by its location. Similar results followed the fraudulent takeover of a Torquay stockbrokers, which went bust, with more jobs lost.

But for Cairns, none of that mattered. To the great and good of Manchester, he was now a small-time tycoon, welcomed in the best restaurants in town. At last, he was living the life he craved so much.

And by now Cairns had recruited others to the gang. Norman Sawtell was a 60-year-old insurance broker who, during the gang's fraudulent dealings, had managed to persuade the Securities and Investment Authority that he was a man of real wealth and had used his membership of the financial regulator Fimbra to lend respectability to their transactions. He even persuaded his friends and family to invest in the businesses, losing thousands of pounds in the process.

The last members of the gang to be recruited were two high-street solicitors who had fallen on hard times. Keith Walton was an alcoholic who in 1994 found himself unemployed, with mounting debts. The judge in the case said it was impossible not to feel any sympathy for him, because he did not believe he was "intrinsically dishonest".

Judge Stokes added: "You succumbed to the temptation of an increase far in excess of what you could hope to earn in honest employment, in return for becoming part of Cairns's schemes."

Walton had not entirely divorced himself from his sense of right and wrong, and when he discovered that an investor in one of the failed enterprises had not got his money back, he raised his genuine concerns with other members in the gang. But soon he was wilfully turning a blind eye to the deceits perpetrated in the course of Cairns's cons, and deliberately used his status as a solicitor to lend "superficial respectability" to some of the companies, as well as "misusing" his client account. The judge said that although Walton was a weak man, he must realise that "when professional men are convicted of offences such as these, severe punishment is inevitable."

The final member of the gang was Noel Horner, another solicitor, whom the judge described as "thoroughly dishonest" and a "disgrace to his profession". He had fallen in with Cairns, fully intending to use his status as a solicitor to help in the laundering of any proceeds that the frauds might generate. He was also used by Cairns to present a number of bouncing cheques. Nevertheless, the judge noted that Horner had "obviously helped" many people during his years as a solicitor.

All five of the gang had gone to extraordinary lengths to convince local businessmen that they were respectable entrepreneurs. All the false companies had plausible names: Global Management UK, Global Management Ireland, Parity Holdings and Moonshape. The gang had used forged bank drafts from Switzerland and Nigeria. By now the police were on to them. But in the end it was Cairns's trusted accomplice, Sergeant, who turned against his fellow crooks and gave evidence against them at the trial.

The judge described him as being motivated by the "trappings of corporate life, the lunches, the company directorships... and the feeling of self-importance". When all that ran out and it became clear that the businesses, which they had risked everything to buy, had failed to produce any wealth, he looked for revenge and a way out.

Detective Inspector Sykes, formerly of Greater Manchester police, says that Sergeant, like the others, had built up big debts in the gang's favourite Manchester restaurant, where they had lavishly toasted their success as fraudsters. But when it would no longer accept the gang's company's credit, he realised their success was an illusion. All those days spent pushing Cairns around in a wheelbarrow, and then acting as his personal chauffeur, were for nothing. Sergeant would have his revenge in court.

Cairns was sentenced to seven years; Sergeant got two and a half. The judge also sentenced Sawtell to two years in prison. Walton got three years, and Horner was given 18 months.