Conman facing jail over £1m Ritz scam

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A penniless conman faces a substantial jail sentence after being convicted today of an ambitious scam to sell The Ritz hotel for £250 million.

Jobless lorry driver Anthony Lee, 49, chose his mark well, finding victims who were interested in the high-stakes world of trophy properties and sucking them in with false promises until they handed over £1 million, Southwark Crown Court in central London heard.

Remanding him in custody, Judge Stephen Robbins said Lee faces an "immediate and quite substantial custodial sentence" on July 27.

Lee was at the heart of a con based on "one great big lie", convincing potential buyer Terence Collins that he was a "close friend and associate" of the reclusive billionaire Barclay brothers, owners of the prestigious hotel in Piccadilly.

But Sir Frederick and Sir David Barclay had never met or even heard of Lee and were completely unaware he was claiming to be able to sell the landmark building from under their noses.

Detective Sergeant Garry Ridler, who led the two-year investigation for North Yorkshire Police, said: "This man is your typical fraudster. He gains the trust of people through lies and once he's got them under his control, he extracts the money from them.

"Not happy with the million pounds, he decided to go back for more."

Anuja Dhir QC, for the prosecution, told the jury of nine women and three men: "The deal that sounded too good to be true was a complete fantasy."

The "simple but well-targeted and ambitious scam" offered the victims a tempting bargain in which they were promised everything but frustrated with unnecessary requests until they handed over £1 million, Ms Dhir said.

Mr Collins sought the support of Dutch billionaire financier Marcus Boekhoorn, of Apvodedo, to finance the £1 million payment in December 2006, telling him that the reclusive Barclay brothers had "secretive reasons" for selling The Ritz through a third party.

But the sale never happened, the promised paperwork never materialised and the money was never returned, the jury heard.

Mr Boekhoorn questioned why it had taken almost four years for the case to come to trial when he flew over from Holland in his private jet to give evidence.

"For me, it's still unbelievable," he said. "It takes such a long time."

Lee claimed in court that the £1 million payment related to a separate property deal he had with Mr Collins.

The court heard Mr Collins agreed to refer to the payment as an introductory fee for a deal in Flaxby, North Yorkshire, "for accounting reasons" - despite Mr Boekhoorn, whose money it was, never having heard anything about this.

During the four-week trial, Lee, an undischarged bankrupt who had a police caution for theft and was behind with his rent at the time of the scam, insisted he was just a "straight-talking Yorkshireman".

Almost the first thing he did when the money landed in his account was transfer £435,000 to his friend Patrick Dolan, 68, the court heard.

Dolan said he blew the money on having a good time. The Irishman took out up to 40,000 euros in cash a day (then worth about £27,000) for gambling and lost 185,000 euros (about £125,000) on the horses. He also bought a £42,000 Mercedes and paid off his 46,000 euro (about £31,000) mortgage.

Telling the jury he spent the rest on himself, he said: "I had a good time. A wise man told me there's no shops in the graveyard."

Following the trial, Andrew West, reviewing lawyer for the CPS central fraud group, said Lee was "patient and convincing" as he carried out the "audacious and targeted fraud".

"He took advantage of his victims' disbelief that anyone would make up such a scheme," Mr West said.

Lee, of Broad Lane, Beal, Goole, East Yorkshire, was convicted of obtaining the £1 million payment by deception after more than 14 hours of jury deliberations.

But he was cleared of conspiracy to defraud between January 1, 2006 and March 30, 2007.

Retired Dolan, of Philip Lane, Tottenham, north London, was also cleared of the conspiracy charge.

The pair's solicitor Conn Farrell, 57, of Cambridge Road, Aldershot, Hampshire - who was accused of lending a "veneer of legitimacy" to the scam - was cleared of the conspiracy charge yesterday after he told the jury he was simply acting on his clients' instructions.