Belfast Telegraph

Victims of crooked La Mon Travel agent vent fury as she avoids jail over £100k swindle

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

Furious victims of a crooked travel agent confronted her over the theft of more than £100,000 as she walked from court having escaped being sent to prison.

Kathy Ward — the former owner of La Mon Travel Limited in Downpatrick — duped scores of customers, taking cash for dream holidays which never materialised.

In some cases, clients were left stranded at airports and ferry terminals after being conned. Airlines and cruise companies were also caught up in the fraud.

The 40-year-old, from Tollymore Brae in Newcastle, had until last month denied any wrongdoing before finally admitting her guilt.

Yesterday she sobbed in court as she was given a two-year prison sentence, suspended for three years.

Her boyfriend and co-accused, 47-year-old Mark McConkey, also of Tollymore Brae, received a one-year sentence suspended for two years after admitting five counts of fraud by false representation and two of theft.

The court was told Ward was suffering from depression at the time of the thefts and used the money to try and keep her ailing business afloat.

Her defence team denied claims she had simply been funding a lavish lifestyle.

Some £29,000 was lodged with the court which the judge ordered be distributed among the victims.

The judge said there had been an intended loss of over £100,000 but an actual loss in the region of £29,000.

Ward’s lawyer said the money lodged with the court would ensure all victims recovered their money.

More than 20 of those conned by Ward were present at Downpatrick Courthouse for sentencing.

Judge Stephen Fowler QC told Ward: “Your offending showed a degree of planning and methodology. You breached the trust of your customers in your capacity as a travel agent.

“There were multiple victims over a significant period of time in which you, Ward, were the prime mover.”

Ward was first charged in December 2010 after police carried out a fraud investigation spanning a six-month period from September 2009.

Sixty customers were conned out of cash by Ward.

Having consistently denied any wrongdoing, Ward last month finally admitted 28 charges of fraud by false representation, 33 of fraud by abuse of position, 18 of theft and one of forgery.

Following sentencing yesterday, Ward’s solicitor, Niall Murphy, said the downturn in the global economy had played a part in her actions.

“Kathy Ward and Mark McConkey would like to sincerely apologise unreservedly for the customers of La Mon Travel who were affected by their actions,” he said, reading a statement on their behalf.

“Kathy and Mark deeply regret the emotional and financial stress that was placed upon their former customers. They would like to take this opportunity to point out that despite many reports this was not an orchestrated fraud to fund a champagne lifestyle.”

However, those who had lost large sums of cash as a result of her deceptive dealings were angry at the suspension of the prison term.

Some shouted at Ward as she left the court with McConkey, both getting into a luxury Mercedes car.

Anna Bowles and her daughter Pauline Broome said they had lost £5,500 they paid for a family break to Florida.

Just weeks before they were due to travel they realised no reservations had been made.

“What message does this send out to our community?” said Ms Bowles.

“You go in and you thieve and you get away with it. I'm really angry, she done us out of £5,500 and we never got a penny.”

Desmond McNeill lost £1,000 on a break he had booked to the Isle of Barra for himself and his daughter. “I never thought I’d be involved in something like this, not for booking something so simple as a weekend break and ending up with this long, drawn-out case,” he said.

Detective Chief Inspector Joanne Harris thanked victims for their patience during what had been a lengthy investigation.

Her victims

* A honeymoon couple stranded in New York when cruise, flights and hotels were not paid for;

* A faimly due to go on their first break for 30 years who arrived at Dublin airport to discover their flights to Nice had not been paid for even though the money, as well as an unauthorised £1,300, had been taken out of their credit card account;

* A 21-year-old left stranded at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia in the US when he found his flight home hadn't been paid for;

* A group of up to 22 people left stranded in New York after their Caribbean cruise wasn't paid for;

* A group of 15 stranded in Barcelona when payments for their Mediterranean cruise had not been forwarded to the cruise operator.

Champagne lifestyle funded by broken holiday dreams

At her initial court appearances Kathy Ward looked every inch the bubbly, confident and successful businesswoman she had for years proclaimed to be.

Living in a plush Tollymore home where she loved to throw lavish cocktail parties, the blonde revelled in luxury holidays, and a penchant for diamonds and designer shoes.

To the outsider, the lives of Ward and her partner Mark McConkey were the rewards from her apparently lucrative La Mon Travel firm. But the business enterprise of the glamorous former air hostess began to crumble when police launched a massive fraud investigation following dozens of complaints.

While in the past she was all too keen to have her picture in the newspapers, she was much more camera-shy yesterday.

In court, the 40-year-old's demeanour was very different.

She sat throughout most of the hearing with her head bowed in the dock, avoiding eye contact with any of her victims, more than 20 of whom had gathered in the public gallery.

As sentencing was being passed down, she sobbed.

Unsuspecting holidaymakers trusted Ward to deliver their dream vacations, many parting with thousands of pounds.

As a result of her crooked and deceptive ways, dozens of them – the vast majority from the local area and known to Ward – found themselves without holiday bookings days before they were due to travel, stranded at airports or the victims of theft from their credit card accounts.

One honeymoon couple were stuck in New York when a cruise, flights and hotels were not paid for.

Another family due to go on their first break for 30 years arrived at Dublin Airport to discover their flights to Nice had not been paid for, even though the money, as well as an unauthorised £1,300, had been taken from their account by Ward.

In a third case, a 21-year-old was left stranded at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US, when he discovered his flight home hadn't been paid for.

Some of those affected shouted "where's our money?" at Ward as she left the court.

A supporter of Ward described members of the media as "the lowest of the low" outside Downpatrick courthouse.

He took pictures of those waiting to question Ward and at one point told a photographer he would "enjoy punching him in the face".

A heavy police presence ensured there were no repeats of previous scenes at Ward's earlier appearances when journalists were jostled by her supporters.

Ward cowered behind her solicitor as he read a statement out on behalf of the disgraced travel agent and her partner.

An apology to their victims was given, but it was accompanied with excuses.

Ward has a history of dishonesty. Six years ago she pleaded guilty to 14 counts of false accounting and theft between 2005 and 2006. In 2007 she admitted to the theft of over £2,000.

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