Conman given three years in jail

A CONMAN who admitted tricking thousands of pounds out of the family of an Essex botanist who went missing in Latin America has been jailed for three and a half years.

A CONMAN who admitted tricking thousands of pounds out of the family of an Essex botanist who went missing in Latin America has been jailed for three and a half years.

Michael Hills, 59, of Waterloo, central London, also conned the father of murdered air hostess Lucie Blackman, missing in Japan, out of £15,000 by pretending he had contacts who could assist the search.

At Chelmsford Crown Court yesterdayJudge Alasdair Darroch said it was hard to understand how anyone could be so cruel.

Hills, who admitted two counts of obtaining property by deception, said he had embarked on the scams in order to raise money to treat his partner Jackie, who was dying of cancer.

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But the judge said there was no evidence of him spending the money he took from Tim Blackman and Brian Winder on medical bills.

At the hearing it emerged that Hills had convictions for deception and theft dating back more than 30 years.

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Judge Darroch said: "It is very difficult to understand how anyone could behave in such a cruel way. This was a deliberate, cunning and calculated deception which you persisted in for some time.

"You told one family their son was dead when he was alive and another family their daughter was alive when in fact she was dead. You can imagine the horror that you caused to them."

The judge imposed consecutive sentences of 18 months and two years - giving a total of three-and-a-half years.

He said Hills would serve half the sentence then be released on licence.

Outside court Mr Winder, 67, said: "He (Hills) was very plausible and we thought he could help. I just hope that he is genuinely sorry. I suspect that he is not. Why would he have done so many things?"

Paul Winder, 32, who now lives in Sheffield but whose family still live near Chelmsford, was kidnapped while trekking in Panama three years ago. He was released unharmed after being held captive for nine months.

David Holborn, prosecuting, said: "It was done for a long period of time when the families were particularly vulnerable with their children missing."

Hills had made contact with Paul's father Brian in July 2000 after reading about the case in the media.

Hills claimed that his daughter had previously gone missing in the area and that he had contacts who could help find him. Mr Winder had handed over £5,000 in the belief that Hills could help.

Hills claimed to have an underworld contact in the area called "Pedro" and told Mr Winder that his son's disappearance was linked to drugs crime.

Mr Winder became suspicious and after reading of Miss Blackman's disappearance and contacted her family. He learned that Hills had already been in touch with Miss Blackman's father Tim.

Lucie Blackman, 21, of Sevenoaks, Kent, disappeared while visiting Japan in July 2000. Her remains were found in a cave near Tokyo in February 2001. A Japanese property developer has been accused of her murder.

Hills had told Mr Blackman - and an official at the British Embassy in Japan - he ran an import/export business and had underworld contacts in Japan who could help find the missing woman.

The court was told that after his arrest earlier this year, Hills admitted the deception and said he had got the idea from men he met in a bar.

Nicola May, for Hills, said her client had needed to find money to pay for cancer treatment for his partner, Jackie, who died in January this year.

"He is particularly sorry for the distress he caused. It is something that preys on his mind all the time. The only thing that motivated him back into committing offences was the unfortunate situation he found himself in with his partner."

Mr Blackman, a 49-year-old property developer who now lives on the Isle of Wight, was not in court yesterday.

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