A loan shark who terrorised vulnerable customers with a campaign of blackmail and intimidation was jailed indefinitely yesterday.
Paul Nicholson used a collection of weapons, including a knuckleduster and a baseball bat, to extort hundreds of thousands of pounds from more than 800 impoverished people in Cheshire. He charged some customers interest of up to 150 per cent on loans.
At Warrington Crown Court last month Nicholson, 39, was convicted of 18 charges including rape, 12 counts of blackmail, lying about his criminal record, operating without a licence and assault.
Sentencing yesterday, Judge Thomas Teague jailed Nicholson, a former nightclub bouncer, for eight years for the rape and seven years consecutively for the blackmail offences. He also ruled Nicholson was a danger to the public, issuing an Imprisonment for Public Protection order which makes the sentence indefinite.
Judge Teague recommended Nicholson's sentence not be reviewed until he served a minimum of six years and 175 days.
Nicholson's girlfriend Tracey Rogers, 38, was jailed for four years for helping to run his "wicked" empire, having been convicted of blackmail, operating without a licence and acquiring criminal property.
Judge Teague said: "You displayed human greed in its chemically pure form. Between you, you held a substantial part of Widnes and Runcorn in a state of fear, bordering on a collective servitude."
When one customer could not pay Nicholson – trading as Falcon Securities – he threatened to petrol bomb her home and another distraught debtor was told: "Your priority is to pay me, not feed your kids."
Nicholson, who lived in a £1.4m house in Delamere, Cheshire, also forced a woman who owed him money to perform a sex act.
He imposed harsh penalty clauses and threatened his clients, even though some were unable to feed their families. Women who owed money were offered the option of "payment in kind" through sexual favours or working in topless bars or as prostitutes to meet the payments for their debts.
Cheshire Police said Nicholson's substantial sentence would send out a clear message to others involved in money-lending schemes.
"Nicholson argued that his business offered a legitimate service to the community. In fact, the business operated through a climate of fear where clients were assaulted, threatened, and in one instance, subjected to serious sexual assault," said Detective Inspector Giles Orton.
Nicholson and Rogers were prosecuted by the North-west trading standards illegal money lending team after a joint investigation with Cheshire Police.
Jacqui Kennedy, of the Government's Stop Loan Sharks project, said: "Since 2004 we have come across some terrible stories of how loan sharks intimidate and bully people – but this is probably the worst case we have seen so far.
"Nicholson trapped vulnerable people in a spiral of debt by charging extortionate interest rates and sexually intimidated women, just so he could maintain his lavish lifestyle. He did not care who he hurt in the process."
A Proceeds of Crime application against Nicholson is now under way to allow Cheshire Constabulary to claw back some of his gains.
His 14-acre home boasted a tennis court and stables where he housed two horses. And investigators found cash totalling around £26,000 inside his home.