Woodwards 'claimed for 75p bubble gum as they got richer and richer'

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The Independent Online

They are etched on British and American minds as the anguished parents who, from the front row of a courtroom gallery, watched their daughter's conviction for the murder of an eight-month-old boy.

They are etched on British and American minds as the anguished parents who, from the front row of a courtroom gallery, watched their daughter's conviction for the murder of an eight-month-old boy.

Yesterday the world turned full circle for Gary and Susan Woodward, an anonymous couple before their elder daughter, Louise, was convicted of second-degree murder in Boston, Massachusetts, two and a half years ago.

Louise and their younger daughter, Victoria, escorted them to Chester Crown Court where they went on trial for defrauding more than £9,000 from the trust fund set up to help their daughter, who was freed from prison after her conviction was reduced to manslaughter.

The 22-year-old law student will testify in her parents' defence so she was unable to watch and hear the prosecuting barrister, Bernard Lever, describe how Mr and Mrs Woodward got "richer and richer and richer" as her murder case dragged on in 1997.

Louise's trust fund drew in £250,000 from a British public moved by "every parent's nightmare, a daughter being accused of murder in a foreign land", said Mr Lever.

The Woodwards, both 44, made "meticulous" claims against the fund - 50 cents (75p) for bubble gum for Louise and even $6.80 (£4.50) for food for her hamster, among £48,000 in personal expenses.

The British Charitable Society paid $250 for Louise's reading matter while she was in prison, and Louise's au pair agency paid $1,492 for clothing, parking and petrol.

The Woodwards had long periods of paid compassionate leave, free transatlantic air travel and free accommodation, and Mr Woodward's bank balance reached £80,000 after the couple received a £50,000 payment they never divulged for an interview from the Daily Mail, said Mr Lever.

Yet, in January 1998, just before handing in the £9,113.50 invoice over which the couple are charged, Mr Woodward told the trust's solicitor that he and his wife had been "wiped out". Each was down to the last £2,000 of their personal equity plans and "urgently in need" of the money.

In fact, they were "two to three times better off" at that time than when Louise was arrested, and up to £37,000 "to the good", said Mr Lever.

The invoice appeared to have been issued by Elaine and Dan Whitfield Sharp, the lawyers who had accommodated the Woodwards in Boston after Louise's arrest.

It demanded £1,500 per month in rent from 1 April to 15 November, 1997, was made out on the Whitfield Sharps' headed notepaper and was annotated, "Paid from Gary Woodward's personal account". It was, said Mr Lever, full of "errors and untruths".

The Woodwards had never been charged by the Whitfield Sharps and had stayed at a flat paid for by Louise's au pair agency during most of October, when she stood trial.

The size of the claim would have meant the Woodwards were charged five times the amount asked of tenants who rented a flat owned by the Whitfield Sharps.

"Outrageous, isn't it?" said Mr Lever, serving up some quintessentially British irony of a kind the Woodwards would not have encountered in the Boston courthouse. "Whoops," Mr Lever added. "Whoever prepared this invoice didn't know the postcode either."

The invoice had detailed an incorrect postcode for the Whitfield Sharps and had incorrectly hyphenated the couple's surname.

Mr Woodward's bank account revealed he had made no payment to the Whitfield Sharps for which the trust might reimburse him. When police questioned him on this, said Mr Lever, Mr Woodward said he was meeting invoices by dipping into a £5,500 cash float he kept "in a bedside table, or a wardrobe, or a sock".

Mr Woodward also contradicted his wife's version of events, said Mr Lever. He told police the couple had not paid rent and that he found the invoice only when they returned to Britain after the trial. Mrs Woodward said they had paid rent and needed to create an invoice to ensure the money was not directed to the Whitfield Sharps.

It was fortunate for the Woodwards, said Mr Lever, that the fund's formal trust structure was established.

In its informal early days, when £20,000 was paid to meet the Woodwards' credit card bills, payments went through "on the nod" and fund organisers would have thought it insensitive to quibble with claims.

But the Whitfield Sharp invoice could not have been presented to one of the fund's founders as she, too, had been treated to free hospitality with the Whitfield Sharps.

Mrs Woodward told police she attributed Mrs Whitfield Sharp's allegations to mood swings arising from a medical condition, an alcohol problem and to anger at not being permitted to make money out of writing a book on the Woodwards.

Mrs Whitfield Sharp denied invoicing the Woodwards.

Mr and Mrs Woodward both deny using a false instrument and furnishing false information. Their trial is expected to last for three weeks and it continues today.