Legal worker stole to pay off debts

A PROBATE manager for a Suffolk solicitors' firm who stole £19,000 from clients' estates to pay off gambling debts has been jailed for 18 months.Father-of-three Gary Beales used bank cards given to him for safekeeping to withdraw money from cash points and even bought himself a car with £7,000 taken from another estate, Ipswich Crown Court heard yesterday.

A PROBATE manager for a Suffolk solicitors' firm who stole £19,000 from clients' estates to pay off gambling debts has been jailed for 18 months.

Father-of-three Gary Beales used bank cards given to him for safekeeping to withdraw money from cash points and even bought himself a car with £7,000 taken from another estate, Ipswich Crown Court heard yesterday.

Beales, of Brand Road, Great Barton, admitted five offences of theft, four of false accounting and two of obtaining property by deception. He also asked for 30 similar offences to be considered.

Sentencing him, Judge John Holt said the 36-year-old had used his position of trust at Ashton Graham Solicitors in Bury St Edmunds to steal from 12 clients' accounts, covering his tracks by false accounting.

The dishonesty had spanned a period of eight months and involved £19,000 - which had since been refunded to the accounts by Beales' employers.

Judge Holt said the defendant's offending had struck at the heart of the trust upon which solicitor's reputations depended. He adjourned a proceeds of crime hearing relating to the case until March 1.

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Richard Potts, prosecuting, told the court that Beales was employed from 1997 as a probate assistant with Ashton Graham and had subsequently been promoted to probate manager.

He was paid an annual salary of £34,000 and had the potential of earning a £5,000 bonus. Mr Potts said Beales' work involved dealing with the financial affairs relating to the estates of the deceased.

His dishonesty came to light in early 2004 when the daughter of one of the clients whose estate was being handled by Beales complained that £274 requested from her by the defendant had not appeared in accounts she had received.

When challenged about the missing money, Beales initially claimed the cash had been paid into the account, but later said it would be in the strong room at Ashton Graham.

An envelope bearing the client's name and containing the missing money was found in the strong room but cheques on an inventory showed that it had not been placed there when Beales said it was.

Further checks revealed that £500 brought into the office at Beales' request for payment of an inheritance tax bill had not been recorded and the relevant account had been altered to hide receipt of the money.

Bank statements of another diseased client showed that withdrawals of £2,265 had been made from cash machines in Kings Lynn and Bury after his death.

At a meeting in March 2004, Beales admitted theft and false accounting and provided his employers with details of other accounts that he had taken money from, including £400 from a bank machine using a cash card he had been given for safekeeping.

Partners of Ashton Graham notified the police of the missing money and made refunds to the affected accounts and estates, said Mr Potts.

After his arrest Beales was remorseful and said gambling debts had made him act out-of-character.

Further inquiries revealed the defendant had dishonestly obtained £7,000 from the building society accounts of a deceased client by forging the signature of a partner at Ashton Graham who was a trustee of the estate. Beales had then used the money to buy an Audi car for his own use.

The court heard that in the autumn of 2002, the defendant had financial difficulties and after speaking to his employers had been offered a loan by them to pay off his debts.

Mr Potts said Beales had repaid his employers for their help by betraying them.

He added that the partners of Ashton Graham were concerned about the impact Beales' dishonesty would have on the standing of the firm.

Matthew McNiff, for Beales, said his client, who had no previous convictions, had admitted his guilt at an early stage and helped identify accounts he had stolen from.

He said there was no evidence of high living by Beales and all his achievements in his working life were now worthless.

Mr McNiff said Beales had been afflicted by a gambling addiction which had escalated out of control.

Since his arrest, the defendant had sought counselling and the help of Gamblers Anonymous and had not run up any new debts. He had also found a new job which did not involve contact with money.

Speaking after the case, a spokesman for Ashton Graham said: “Gary Beales was employed by the firm as a Probate Manager in January 1997.

“In February 2004, circumstances were brought to our attention which suggested that he may have dishonestly misappropriated a sum of money. He was immediately suspended pending investigation and was subsequently dismissed.

“We have since discovered a number of similar instances which we reported to the police. All clients affected have been notified and any losses identified have been reimbursed.”

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