Belfast Telegraph

Bernadette McGeary avoids jail over £200k international property scam

By Adrian Rutherford

A businessman duped out of £40,000 in an international property scam has spoken of his anger after the woman responsible avoided prison.

Bernadette McGeary walked free from court after a judge opted to suspend her two-year custodial sentence.

She previously pleaded guilty to fleecing speculators and investors in the Spanish property market out of £200,000.

Last night McGeary's victims told the Belfast Telegraph of their anger at the sentence.

Dungannon businessman Chris Faloon, who gave her €48,000 to purchase an apartment, said he was outraged.

"I'm disgusted – message does this send out?" he said. "We were defrauded by Bernadette McGeary and now we feel defrauded by the justice system. She just walked off with our money and she's walked off with a slap on the wrist. It's disgraceful."

Mr Faloon accepts he is unlikely to ever see a penny of the cash he invested.

He is one of nine people who McGeary admitted fleecing.

The 55-year-old, from Carland Road, Dungannon, pleaded guilty last month to eight counts of theft and one of obtaining financial advantage by deception.

She persuaded people to hand over money on the pretext that they were buying property in Spain or investing with the potential for a quick profit.

The sums involved ranged from £7,000 to £60,000, and totalled around £200,000. None of it has been recovered by police.

Belfast Crown Court heard McGeary used her victims' money as her own.

Prosecuting lawyer Frank O'Donoghue said: "The money was not used to purchase or invest in property portfolios for which the money had been provided." Mr O'Donoghue said one victim handed McGeary £60,000 to buy a Spanish apartment which never materialised.

Another, Mairead Stewart gave McGeary £7,000 to invest with the expectation of a 40% return, but never saw any cash.

Mr O'Donoghue said some investors tried to recover their money but ended up going "on wild goose chases" after McGeary refused to meet them. He said some of the victims had lost their life savings.

Defence QC Greg Berry said McGeary intended to invest her clients' money as agreed, but was caught up in "a perfect storm" of changes in property law, the crash and builders going bust.

He stressed McGeary did not gain, adding that she is now "financially destitute".

Judge David McFarland did not impose a compensation order on the grounds that she is not in a position to pay.

Analysis

She promised dream homes in Spanish sun... instead victims were left with shattered dreams

They trusted her with their savings, believing they were buying a dream home in the sun, but Bernadette McGeary callously betrayed their faith, leaving her victims empty-handed, out of pocket and now seething with anger.

She stole from friends and even her own family, duping would-be investors out of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Yesterday the 55-year-old walked free from court after a judge opted to suspend her two-year prison sentence.

McGeary stole thousands from people after persuading them to invest in the booming Spanish property scene.

But the dream homes they thought they were buying never materialised.

The 55-year-old, with an address in Dungannon, had no expertise but managed to convince her victims to sign over their savings through a combination of charm and misplaced trust.

Dressed smartly in a black suit and cream scarf, and with her blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, McGeary sat impassively in the dock during yesterday's sentencing.

A fluent Spanish speaker, she lived in Northern Ireland and Spain, where she operated a translation company before setting up an advisory service.

By 2003 she had delved into the property market, persuading people to invest their hard-earned cash in Spain.

Six of the nine victims McGeary admitted duping thought they were buying property.

Another three handed over money, believing they could make a quick profit.

Her victims included the Murfitts, a couple from Northern Ireland. They visited Spain in early 2006 and agreed to hand over £60,000. Their money ended up in the accounts of McGeary's siblings.

A second victim, Dungannon businessman Chris Faloon, gave her €48,000 towards an apartment in 2004.

The following year McGeary informed him of cash-flow issues and problems with the builder.

Brian Campbell, a third victim, is a cousin of McGeary. He gave her £35,000 in December 2005, a month after going out to Spain to identify an apartment.

Mairead Stewart gave McGeary £7,000 to invest in the hope of a 40% profit.

Another investor, Brian Drumm, invested £35,000. However, he became concerned after reading a newspaper article and asked McGeary for the money to be returned.

In September 2007 she arranged to meet him at a bank in Spain, but never showed up. Another meeting which was scheduled three months later also fell through.

"He, like the others, was sent on what were effectively wild goose chases," prosecuting lawyer Frank O'Donoghue QC told the court.

As investors became more suspicious, they asked police to investigate.

McGeary had been due to go on trial last month but, as the case was about to begin, she was rearraigned and pleaded guilty to nine new counts.

The money involved totalled over £200,000.

Mr O'Donoghue explained that McGeary's scam coincided with the property boom.

"She held herself out to Northern Ireland investors at a time when the Spanish market was very attractive to foreign investors," he added.

The court heard McGeary has not benefited financially from the scam.

She claims the money she stole went to pay builders and to reimburse others who had lost cash.

Mr O'Donoghue added: "When investments had gone sour it was effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"When the music stopped there was no money left in the kitty at all."

Defence lawyer Greg Berry QC told the court McGeary intended to use the money as the investors agreed, and was initially honest, but was hit by "a perfect storm" of changes in Spanish property law and the financial crash, which saw many builders go into administration.

Had the property bubble not burst, he continued, there would have been no crime, no court case.

Judge David McFarland criticised the speculation of the "heady days" which allowed the bubble to develop.

Turning to McGeary, he said she had preyed on her victims' vulnerability.

The judge handed out a two-year prison sentence, suspended for two years, but did not impose a compensation order because McGeary – said to be financially destitute – is not in a position to repay any money.

After the sentencing some of the victims, who had watched from the public gallery, gathered outside the courtroom to express their anger.

While they were chatting, McGeary emerged, brazenly staring at one before walking away.

One asked if she was proud of herself, but McGeary refused to answer. She also declined to answer when asked by the Belfast Telegraph whether she was sorry for her scam or intended to repay the victims' money.

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