Fraud trial tycoon killed himself
A businessman killed himself while on trial with members of his family for a £20 million fraud, it can be reported today.
Peter Benstead, 72, was found dead in a vehicle near his home in Cornwall on Sunday afternoon, hours after being reported missing.
Jurors at London's Southwark Crown Court were only told of Benstead's death today, in private, as they returned their verdicts in the three-month-long case - unaware the principal defendant had killed himself.
The seven men and five women had spent nearly two weeks considering Benstead's alleged involvement in the Crown Currency Ltd fraud case when he died. He had not appeared in the dock at various times during the three-month trial due to existing health issues.
The media were banned from reporting Benstead's apparent suicide until after the final verdicts were returned.
His Honour, Judge Michael Gledhill QC asked jurors not to return verdicts on the 10 counts on which Benstead was accused.
However, jurors did find Benstead's widow Susan guilty of one count of money laundering - a joint charge with her late husband on which she could only be convicted if he was.
Their son Julian, and son-in-law Roderick Schmidt, were also convicted of offences relating to Crown Currency, along with employees Stephen Matthews and Edward James.
The widow was not in court when the verdicts were announced in two sessions, yesterday and today. The judge had told jurors "not to be worried" by the Bensteads' absence.
Addressing the jury at the end of the trial - before going into chambers and informing them of Benstead's death - the judge said: "I asked you to put him to one side. I will tell you why I have done that in a few moments' time."
Having told the jury about Benstead's suicide, the judge said "one or two were quite deeply affected" by the news.
The court heard 12,500 customers were left out of pocket to the tune of nearly £20 million when the Cornish-based firm went under in October 2010.
Prosecutor Peter Grieves-Smith said Crown offered customers fiercely competitive offers on foreign currency, but ran into serious financial problems when their market speculating came up woefully short. It meant Crown was having to use new clients' investments to settle existing debts.
The court heard the ailing firm was still accepting payment from customers, even when some staff knew the firm was insolvent - with little chance of clients getting their money back.
Yesterday four people were convicted of their part in the fraud. Susan Benstead, Julian Benstead, Schmidt and fellow Crown Currency Ltd employee Matthews were convicted of a range of offences after jurors spent 45 hours and 30 minutes deliberating.
Schmidt, Crown's day-to-day manager, 46, of Penzance in Cornwall, was convicted of two counts of fraudulent trading. He was cleared of two counts of false accounting.
Crown's former accountant Matthews, 52, of St Newlyn, was convicted of two counts of false accounting but cleared of two counts of fraudulent trading.
Julian Benstead, 46, of Penzance, who ran Crown's sister company which specialised in trading cash for gold, was convicted of one count of fraudulent trading. He was cleared of the theft of 11.3kg of gold which went "missing" in the days leading up to Crown's collapse - a count on which his father was also charged.
The precious metal has never been found.
Susan Benstead, 70, of Penzance, had no involvement in the day-to-day running of the businesses. She was convicted of one charge of money laundering - using £897,459 of customers' money to buy a luxury home in Cornwall.
Former Crown director Edward James, the ex-mayor of Glastonbury in Somerset, was found not guilty of two counts of false accounting. He was convicted today of two counts of fraudulent trading relating to the days leading up to the collapse.
They will be sentenced at Southwark on June 12.
Detective Chief Inspector Paul Bean of Devon and Cornwall Police said: "While I welcome the verdicts of the court today I have to recognise it's a tragedy when anyone loses their life.
"But the verdicts of the court today have gone some way to giving the victims a certain amount of closure in relation to this five-year investigation.
"It was an extremely lengthy investigation and trial in which we had to deal with in excess of 350 bank accounts, 3,000 exhibits and documents and 12,500 victims throughout the country."
He added: "The internet allows companies to be based anywhere in the UK and trade and although this is one of the biggest frauds Devon and Cornwall Police have investigated it could have happened anywhere in the country.
"We will now seek leave of the court to enact the Proceeds of Crime Act to seek confiscation or compensation on behalf of the victims as far as we can.
"I have had a very small, dedicated team of officers that through their due diligence and good police work have reached this result."