Making your fortune by investing in an ostrich farm in South Wales always seemed an unlikely proposition. But money poured in from more than 100 investors, lured by a glossy brochure and the promise of profits of 70 per cent a year.
Yesterday, with Evans' Ostrich Centre exposed as a classic fraud, the woman behind the scam was given a two-year suspended sentence and banned from running a company for 10 years after being convicted of stealing more than £300,000. Swansea Crown Court was told that her husband had jumped bail - probably to Spain - where he was being sought by police. An arrest warrant has been issued.
Judge Michael Burr said he had no doubt the ostrich farm, run by Esther and Martin Evans, was never anything other than a scam. "I am satisfied that the whole ostrich farm was set up from the beginning as a dishonest means of depriving investors of their money," he said.
The court had been told that Evans, 36, from Swansea, and her 38-year-old husband Martin - a lover of the "high life" and once named as Wales's young businessman of the year - had set up the farm at Dunvant, near Swansea, in 1995.
They advertised in national newspapers with the slogan "Ostrich Nest Egg". And the investors came, pouring in hundreds of thousands of pounds in the hope that the low-fat, BSE-free ostrich meat was the perfect alternative to beef or lamb. It is believed a number of elderly people invested their life savings. But what the investors did not know was that Martin Evans had just been released from prison where he had served 15 months for obtaining property by deception.
A total of 115 people invested an aggregate sum of £875,000 before the holding company was declared insolvent in July 1996. By then, £329,000 had been channelled into offshore accounts in Jersey and the Bahamas.
At this point an element of farce entered the proceedings. Angry investors formed a raiding party and showed up at Bevexe Fawr Farm and snatched a number of birds by way of compensation.
Carl Farrell, a retired designer, from the West Midlands, invested £13,500 in the scheme. He got back £1,800 from thesale of two hen ostriches taken during the raid. While tryingto recover the birds he found piles of dead ostrich chicks behind the sheds.
"They were not being fed the right vitamins and I don't think they had anybody experienced in looking after ostriches," he said. "I feel very angry about it - no one likes being conned. I genuinely thought there might a be a future for ostrich farming. It is a thriving industry in South Africa and Australia."
Mr Farrell said that although he was initially impressed by the brochure, when he wrote later asking for a report on his investments, all he received was a series of recipe cards.
Other investors are unlikely to receive a penny. Detectives who investigated the case said the money in the offshore accounts had now gone.
The judge told Evans - who was found guilty of four charges of theft and one of fraudulent trading - that he did not believe she was the "innocent dupe" she had pretended to be.
He accepted, however, that she had been manipulated by her husband, who dreamt up the idea while he was an inmate at Usk open prison.
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