Brothers face jail over Lapland theme park con

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Two brothers could be jailed after they were convicted today of misleading thousands of customers into visiting what they claimed was a Lapland-style theme park.

Victor Mears, 67, and brother Henry, 60, offered visitors a winter wonderland with snow-covered log cabins, a nativity scene, husky dogs, polar bears and other animals, as well as a bustling Christmas market.

But instead of the promised magical festive treat, they experienced fairy lights hung from trees and a broken ice rink.

Within days of the Lapland New Forest attraction opening in November 2008, hundreds of disgruntled visitors complained to trading standards officials that they had been ripped off.

Less than a week later, the attraction closed, with the brothers blaming the media and sabotage by "New Forest villains" for the decision.

Dorset Trading Standards prosecuted the Mears under consumer protection laws introduced three years ago.

The brothers denied eight charges of misleading advertising but they were found guilty on all counts after a jury at Bristol Crown Court heard a catalogue of complaints from a string of disgruntled customers.

With visitors charged £30 a ticket and with up to 10,000 advance bookings online, the Mears brothers were set to gross £1.2 million.

They advertised the theme park on its own website, in local newspapers and with flyers.

The eye-catching website offered a "snow-covered village near Bournemouth" with a "magical tunnel of light", "beautiful snow-covered log cabins", a "bustling Christmas market", "wonderful ice rink" and "delicious hot and cold seasonal food".

In bold, the website stated: "The attention to detail of our theme park will truly wow you."

It also boasted: "As our show is being staged for the first time, our website can only begin to hint at our wonderland."

Flyers for the theme park promised: "Lapland New Forest where dreams really do come true. Lapland has come to Dorset."

People travelled from as far as west Wales, the Midlands and the south east of England to visit the theme park at Matchams Leisure Park, near Ringwood, Hants.

Within days of Lapland New Forest opening, thousands of people had complained to Dorset Trading Standards.

The attraction featured in national newspapers and on television with reports of fights between disgruntled customers and staff.

Within a week, Lapland New Forest had closed and the company behind it had gone into liquidation.

Prosecutor Malcolm Gibney said of customers at the start of the trial: "Some of them travelled many, many miles and they told of their utter disappointment at what they saw, and their anger.

"The only feeling of 'wow' that many of the consumers felt was 'wow, what a con'.

"There were a lot of families with young children that spent a lot of money on what they hoped would be a wonderful Christmas treat."

Victor Mears, who has previous convictions for obtaining money transfer by deception, VAT evasion and conspiracy to defraud, admitted he took a "bit of a gamble" in setting up Lapland New Forest without investing any money.

He said that rather than write things down, he made verbal agreements and arranged many of the details in his head, like a market trader.

He said: "I showed due diligence. I did everything I could to account for everything."

Mears, who was Lapland's only director, blamed local businessman Charlie Cooper for the theme park's problems and accused him of sabotaging the attraction.

Mr Cooper, who runs a car boot sale at the Matchams Park site, branded Victor Mears a "conman" and told jurors: "He (Victor Mears) is using me as a scapegoat. They have got the money. They have probably got it somewhere. It's probably under the bed."

Henry Mears told jurors that following his brother's illness he took on more of a managerial role.

"Victor's idea was to do the ultimate Christmas grotto, outside as opposed to inside," he said.

He said that the attraction was everything they promised customers it would be.

"Whatever you do, you will find the public complain about something," he added.

Victor, of Selsfield Drive, and Henry, of Coombe Road, both Brighton, stood expressionless in the dock as the jury foreman returned the guilty verdicts after a day of deliberations.

Judge Mark Horton adjourned sentencing until March 18 for the preparation of pre-sentence reports but warned the brothers they could be jailed.

Addressing barrister Rossano Scarmardella, who represents Henry Mears, the judge said: "In this case this jury have found that your client and Mr Victor Mears have promised by deceit to satisfy dreams and have delivered misery by way of disappointment to thousands of people.

"I am bound to say that this court is considering in this case whether a term of imprisonment may follow."

Judge Horton told Victor Mears, who defended himself during the trial, to be honest with the probation service.

"This is absolutely your last opportunity to give a full and frank disclosure of what you say is the background to this," he said.

The brothers were released on bail until sentencing. Neither commented as they left court in a car driven by Victor Mears's son.