Female 'Walter Mitty' stole £2m to fund lavish lifestyle

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The Independent Online

The finance director of a top marketing agency who presided over redundancies as she siphoned off more than £2m to fund extraordinary spending sprees on everything from vintage wines to top-range sports cars was sentenced to five years in jail yesterday.

Sharon Bridgewater, 36, of Basingstoke in Hampshire, bought Porches and Ferraris for her boyfriend, splashed out on exotic holidays and downed £500 bottles of wine "like water" at London top's restaurants with the money, a court heard.

Described as "a female Walter Mitty" fantasist, she pleaded guilty to 16 counts of theft at Southwark Crown Court in London. Her boyfriend, Robert Sangster, 34, of Braintree, Essex, received a nine month sentence, suspended for 18 months, after being found guilty of perverting the course of justice by trying to conceal the existence of several Porches and a £70,000 Ferrari Spyder bought with the funds. The car was part of a "jaw-dropping" collection that included a 50-year-old classic Porsche Speedster.

Police said that Bridgewater "lived the lifestyle of a footballer's wife" over a period of years, investing £100,000 on a kitchen that was lauded in a glossy magazine and spending up to £2,200 at a time on dining out, including at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant at Claridge's.

She also bought a villa in Spain along with a buy-to-let portfolio in the UK including a £650,000 converted barn in Essex, while her own home was kitted out with a £90,000 "entertainment system". The court was told that Bridgewater's first "betrayal of trust" came in 1996 when, as accounts manager at the Surrey computer hardware firm Dyna-Five, she stole £25,000 disguised as payments to suppliers and the HM Revenue and Customs.

The "lapsed accountancy student" was then exposed as her boss checked the company's accounts and pleaded guilty to eight false accounting offences before being sentenced to 150 hours' community service.

Later, however, having kept secret her conviction for fraud and pretending the community service was charity work, she managed to gain the job of financial director at the marketing firm Hicklin Slade & Partners based in Bloomsbury, central London.

Between August 1999 and May 2005, Bridgewater swindled millions from the firm, and continued to steal from it even as financial problems forced it to lay off its staff, spending £100,000 on the birthday of her boyfriend, who described himself as a "kept man" and a "house husband".

After stealing £2m from Hicklin Slade & Patners, she resigned and moved on to create an internet banking facility into which she channelled £55,000 from a small radio station, Universal Sound Principles, which she persuaded to use the service.

Meanwhile Hicklin Slade & Partners called in auditors to look into their "parlous financial state", and Bridgewater was exposed again. Initially she tried to lie her way out of the situation, blaming colleagues, one of whom was arrested.

Bridewater wept in court as Recorder Brian Argyle described how staff lost her jobs because of her plundering of the company's funds. "You were present at meetings at which decisions were made that staff should be made redundant," he said.

The recorder said that in addition to the jail sentence Bridgewater would be barred from being a company director for 12 years.