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Lapland con brothers jailed

Two brothers who conned thousands of customers into visiting what they claimed was a Lapland-style theme park were both jailed for 13 months today.

Victor Mears, 67, and Henry Mears, 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.

Instead, disappointed families found a muddy field, a broken ice rink and fairy lights hung from trees.

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 brothers under consumer protection laws.

Victor, of Selsfield Drive, and Henry, of Coombe Road, both Brighton, denied eight charges of misleading advertising but they were found guilty in February on all counts at Bristol Crown Court.

With visitors charged £30 a ticket and 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."

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

But prosecutor Malcolm Gibney said: "The only feeling of 'wow' that many of the consumers felt was 'wow, what a con'."

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.

But he told the court: "I showed due diligence. I did everything I could to account for everything."

Henry Mears told jurors the attraction was everything they promised customers it would be.

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

Jailing the pair, Judge Mark Horton said the Mears brothers had promised a winter wonderland but delivered a "con and a rip-off" - likening the theme park to a car boot sale.

He told the pair: "You promised customers in your advertising an amazing snow-covered Lapland village which was - in your own wonderful words - 'Where dreams really do come true' and 'Where we have prided ourselves on attention to detail'.

"You told consumers that it would light up those who most loved Christmas. You said you would go through the magical tunnel of light coming out in a winter wonderland.

"What you actually provided was something that looked like an averagely-managed summer car boot sale.

"The failure of Lapland New Forest was caused by the unrelenting greed shown by you and your desire to squeeze every drop of profit rather than build and create the winter wonderland you promised thousands of consumers.

"The types of misleading advertisements on the internet erode the public confidence in their reliability.

"The public need to know that it is not lawful to lie, deceive and cheat on the internet."

Judge Horton said Victor Mears had the original idea for Lapland New Forest and took all the major financial decisions but worked closely with his brother.

"I have had the opportunity to observe you both during the trial, both in your attitude to this case and the volume of quite obvious lies told," he said.

"In this case, I was unable to discern any remorse in your actions. You still seek to blame others for that which you failed to achieve."

Earlier, the court heard that since their convictions their families had been targeted by local people.

"Society was revolted by the fact that you had told lies and caused so much anguish to parents and children alike and it touched something on society," the judge said.

"I have no doubt that your families have suffered a great deal of pain and torment as society made plain the way it felt about this type of crime."

Both were also disqualified from being company directors for five years.

The brothers showed no expression on their faces as they were led away from the dock to begin their sentences.

Andrew Selby, representing Victor Mears, said his client - who lives in a council flat with his wife - was in ill-health and suffered from kidney cancer, as well as diabetes.

"Since the convictions Mr Mears' fall from grace has been spectacular," he said.

"The effect of the offending upon his family has been monumental and no doubt there will be people who say Mr Mears has brought these matters upon himself."

Rossano Scarmardella, for Henry Mears, said the former greengrocer turned taxi driver would now lose his cab licence.

"These offences at this stage of his life are a severe blow to his family," he added.

The court was told that financial investigators could not find any assets belonging to the brothers.

A hearing to decide the amount the brothers would pay towards the costs of bringing the trial - said by the prosecution to be over £100,0000 - would be held at a later date.