A mother-of-four suffered two strokes and a brain haemorrhage from the stress of owing a loan shark thousands of pounds, a court heard today.
Debra Wilson, 40, paid Robert Reynolds a total of £88,000 over a seven-year period to meet a £500 debt taken out to buy a computer.
Newcastle Crown Court heard that at one point Mrs Wilson and her husband Kevin were giving Reynolds more than £2,000 a month and were falling further and further into debt.
They took out more loans from Reynolds - seeing their monthly payments increase - and were even forced to re-mortgage their home to pay off council tax and utility bill debts.
Prosecutor Ann Richardson told the court: "The final straw for Mrs Wilson was on January 23 2008 when her daughter came home with a bag of food leftovers from her babysitting job, saying she was sick of being hungry.
"There was no gas, the house was freezing and Mrs Wilson went to the police."
Reynolds, 39, of Cotswold Terrace, Stanley, County Durham, admitted a charge of harassment with intent to commit violence.
Jobless Reynolds received a 51-week prison sentence, suspended for two years, and was banned indefinitely from contacting the Wilson family.
Passing sentence, Judge John Evans said: "You are a loan shark.
"You are a person without a conscience and you should be stamped with a government health warning as anybody who comes into contact with you will be at risk of damaging their health.
"Your behaviour towards that family is beneath contempt."
Reynolds always maintained that he was acting as the "go between" between the Wilsons and another man - who he refused to name.
Police say Reynolds was lying and was using the cash he pocketed from the family to fund his own lifestyle.
The court heard that Mrs Wilson had first borrowed £500 from Reynolds - a family friend just before Christmas 2000 to buy her daughter a computer worth £350.
He told her there would be a "bit of interest" added but days later told Mrs Wilson that the person lending the money would want £750 in return for lending the £500 - and that would be payable the following month.
"Almost immediately Mrs Wilson began to have regrets and wondered if she would be able to make the payments on time," Mrs Richardson said.
Reynolds then told Mrs Wilson that she would have to pay £250 a month interest on the £500 debt until she was in a position to pay back the £750.
"This placed the Wilsons in an impossible position, every month the defendant attended their home on the date Mrs Wilson received her disability living allowance and collected £250," the prosecutor said.
"The couple had a real struggle to pay the bills and feed and clothe themselves and their children on the little money that remained."
By July 2001, Mrs Wilson and her husband Kevin had paid Reynolds £1,750.
The couple were unable to meet Reynolds' demands and spiralled further into debt.
"In early 2004, when handing over some cash to the defendant, Mrs Wilson told him it was every penny that she had," Mrs Richardson said.
"Nonetheless he took it, leaving Mrs Wilson wondering how she was going to feed the children that night.
"The couple got deeper into arrears, Mrs Wilson even borrowing money from her school age daughter, which she had earned by babysitting."
The stress of meeting Reynolds' demands each month put an intolerable stress upon Mrs Wilson and her family, the court heard.
In May 2005, she had a stroke followed by another one in August and then a brain haemorrhage.
"In November 2005 the payments increased from £1,200 to £1,500 per month," Mrs Richardson said.
"By Christmas 2006 there was no money to buy presents and extremely foolishly Mrs Wilson asked the defendant if she could borrow an extra £500.
"The defendant said he would have to ask 'the lad'. Later he said this was okay and the payments would now be £85 per week instead of £50 and the £1,500 still needed to be paid every month."
Reynolds even took £3,000 of a £4,000 compensation payout that Mr Wilson received for a motorbike accident - with only the weekly payments of £85 halving, the court heard.
"The final straw for Mrs Wilson was on January 23 2008 when her daughter came home with a bag of food leftovers from her babysitting job, saying she was sick of being hungry," the prosecutor said.
"There was no gas, the house was freezing and Mrs Wilson went to the police.
"Once the police were informed, Mrs Wilson went to the police station to make a statement.
"While there she received the usual phone call from the defendant about the payments.
"Pc Hulse listened in to this conversation, in which the defendant said 'the lad' would not like her paying less that month, he talked about liking his legs - a reference to what these people could do - and said he wanted £1,600 by January 31, £585 the following Friday and £85 that day."
After police arrested Reynolds, he told officers he was registered disabled because of arthritis and psoriasis and lived on benefits.
He was originally charged with blackmail but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of harassment with intent to commit violence.
"The Crown submits that, although the defendant began to lend money at exorbitant rates of interest, this did not become an offence of blackmail until he began to insinuate that, if the payments were not made on time and in full, 'things' would happen to the Wilsons," Mrs Richardson said.
"Thereafter, this preyed upon Mrs Wilson's mind and she accepted the more and more ludicrous terms upon which the defendant insisted the money was lent.
"It is the Crown's case that there was no third party and that it was the defendant himself who lent the money, taking the Wilsons' cash and spending it upon himself and his family to supplement his benefits."
Tony Davis, defending, said this was a case which was a reflection of modern times - with many people being unable to borrow money from more reputable sources, like banks.
"Mr Reynolds is a man of hitherto good character, a man who has no previous convictions, a man who is not in good health."
Speaking after the case, Mrs Wilson, who now works as a receptionist, said she was "slightly disappointed" with the suspended sentence.
"I was hoping for a custodial sentence for everything he put me and my family through," she said.
"The last seven years we have lived a life of poverty. We've had no money, surviving with second-hand clothes, second-hand school uniforms.
"We reached a point where I'd had enough and needed to do something about it. He was getting all of our money - I didn't even have a pound for the television.
"It was very stressful trying to find the money to pay him with my husband working all the hours God sends.
"So it did have a very bad effect on my health.
"I just hope now he will have the decency to keep away from me and my family."
Mrs Wilson, who lives just a few streets from Reynolds, urged anyone who was in debt with a loan shark to go to the police.
"Don't, please, it's really not worth it. At the end of the day it is not worth the long stressful road that you will be on," she said.
"If you are involved with a loan shark, go to the police. It needs to be stopped now. Loan sharks should not be allowed to do business."
Mrs Wilson said she and her husband Kevin, 41, and four children aged 19, 19-year-old twins, and 14, could move on with their lives.
"I am buying stuff for myself now, even if I am feeling a bit guilty about it. We've got plenty of food in our fridge and spare cash at the end of the month," she said.
"I feel guilty about spending our money. I've definitely got my life back. It's been a huge strain and we can now start again."
Pc Natalie Hulse, who led the investigation, said she was disappointed for Mrs Wilson that Reynolds had not been jailed.
"The judge has got to pass sentence based on the rules they are given and because of Reynolds' health he has not gone to prison today," she said.
"I am happy for Debra that this is now over and today has given her closure.
"She does not see the wrong in anybody and Reynolds took advantage of that.
"Hopefully Debra can now get her health back on track."
Referring to Reynolds, the officer said: "You are dealing with a man with no conscience.
"Even in the police interviews he insisted there was a third party and he was the go-between.
"There was no third party - he was living off the Wilsons. His downfall was that he got greedy.
"Had he not gone to the extreme lengths that he did, the likelihood is that Debra would never have come to the police."
Reynolds claimed he was penniless and told reporters: "Have a look in my accounts."
He was driven away from court in a waiting Jaguar car.