Conman jailed for Ritz scam

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A penniless conman was jailed for five years today for an ambitious scam to sell the Ritz hotel for £250 million.

Jobless lorry driver Anthony Lee, 49, from Goole, East Yorkshire, found victims who were interested in the high-stakes world of trophy properties and sucked them in with false promises until they handed over £1 million, London's Southwark Crown Court heard.

Lee was convicted earlier this month of obtaining the £1 million payment by deception.

Sentencing him today, Judge Stephen Robbins described the offence as an "elaborate and outrageous scam".

The judge sentenced Lee to five years, less the 25 days he has already served in custody.

"You were found guilty by a jury of this elaborate and outrageous scam, purporting to sell the Ritz hotel, thereby obtaining £1 million from your victim," he said.

Lee convinced 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 even heard of Lee and were completely unaware he was claiming to be able to sell the landmark building from under their noses.

Mr Collins sought the support of Dutch billionaire financier Marcus Boekhoorn to finance the £1 million payment in December 2006, telling him 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.

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".

The judge told him: "This con or scam or sting, whatever term is used, was probably motivated by your mistaken belief that Terry Collins had deprived you of another potentially lucrative property deal and it may be that this offence was done out of revenge."

The judge made a judicial commendation for Detective Sergeant Garry Ridler, who led the two-year investigation for North Yorkshire Police.

After the hearing, Det Sgt Ridler said he welcomed the sentence and said Lee's actions had not been "victimless".

"It was well-planned, it was well thought out and there were victims," he said. "Reputations were ruined."

Earlier, Nicholas Johnson, for Lee, told the court his client was diabetic, suffered from kidney disease and had been the main carer for his partner until his conviction.

He said: "The custodial setting has hit him hard. He is very different in his aspect."

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

Dolan said he blew the money on having a good time.

Lee, of Broad Lane, Beal, Goole, East Yorkshire, was convicted of obtaining the £1 million payment by deception.

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 after he told the jury he was simply acting on his clients' instructions.