Belfast Telegraph

Jailed: Armagh woman who stole £120,000 to cover son's gambling debts

By Adrian Rutherford

This is the postmistress who was jailed after stealing £120,000 to cover debts run up by her son's "atrocious" gambling habit.

Margaret Ruth Johnston, said to be a pillar of the community, broke down in tears after a judge ordered her to serve 12 months behind bars.

The widow spent thousands of pounds of her own money trying to help her son, who had been gambling since he was 14.

When her cash began to run out, she turned to the Post Office premises where she spent years working.

Her thieving began with small amounts such as £2,000 but quickly spiralled out of control, Craigavon Crown Court was told yesterday.

It reached the stage where she was regularly taking "bundles of cash" from the safe.

Soon the Post Office began to suspect that cash was going missing and, when auditors announced they would launch an investigation, Johnston confessed to her thieving.

Yesterday a judge described her fall from grace as an "absolute tragedy", before imposing a 12-month custody sentence, saying it would serve as a warning to others.

Johnston (60), from Grove Gardens in Armagh, spent 27 years with Ulster Bank, rising to the position of senior cashier, before becoming postmistress at the Barrack Street branch.

Prosecuting lawyer Simon Jenkins told the court that in March 2012 concerns were raised by the Post Office's anti-fraud team about finances at the branch.

An audit was carried out in May 2012 and discrepancies were found in the cash figures.

Realising her thieving would be discovered, Johnston approached auditors and informed them the office was short of £120,000.

She was later charged with six offences, including theft, fraud and false accounting.

She explained her son, Kyle Johnston, had run up heavy debts due to gambling and, after exhausting her own cash, she turned to Post Office funds.

The court heard that over a seven-month period Johnston stole a total of £120,597.

On one occasion she used the identity of her daughter – who also worked at the branch – to access cash. Her daughter was unaware of this. Mr Jenkins said there were a number of aggravating factors, including the serious breach of trust and significant sum of cash stolen. Johnston sat silently weeping and breathing heavily in the dock as defence lawyer Alan Cunningham described how she was "embarrassed and ashamed at her fall from grace".

He said Johnston's sole motivation was the fact she believed her son's life was in danger because of debts.

Mr Cunningham explained that her son was just 14 when he acquired "what can only be described as an atrocious gambling habit".

He added: "It is often said a mother's love knows no bounds – this is a tragic case of that."

The court heard there was a lack of sophistication to her thieving.

She admitted during police interviews that it was a relief to be caught, telling detectives: "I always knew I'd be caught."

Mr Cunningham said Johnston intended to pay back every penny she had stolen.

A £50,000 pension 'nest-egg' has already been cashed in to pay off some of the debt, while Johnston has put her home and business up for sale to raise the remainder. He said her reputation is destroyed, adding: "She was a respected member of the community who was held in esteem – effectively now she is a thief.

"Her 37 years of diligent service in the financial industry counts for nothing."

Jailing Johnston, judge Gemma Loughran said it was "an absolute tragedy" that a woman of her standing was before the court, saying it was the result of "misplaced loyalty" to her son.

Judge Loughran said she accepted Johnston took the money to "accede to the unfair and disgraceful demands" of her son.

"The more he demanded the more you gave him, and the more you gave him the more he demanded," she told Johnston.

However, the judge said she had to impose a sentence to act as a deterrent to others.

She jailed Johnston for 12 months, adding that she would spend a further year on license.

Her son refused to speak as he left the courthouse.

Instead, he ran away with his head covered in order to avoid the cameras.

'It was very wrong, but she did what any mother would do'

A former colleague of Margaret Johnston said they were "stunned" to hear that she had been sent to jail, adding there was a lot of sympathy for the 60-year-old widow.

"It does seem very harsh because people have accepted she didn't do it for personal gain," the friend said.

"She did what any mother would do and try to help her son, although what she did was very wrong."

The prison term contrasts with a suspended sentence handed down to self-confessed fraudster Kathy Ward.

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

She was given a two-year prison sentence, suspended for three years.

The Lord Chief Justice's office said each case is dealt with on its own merits. A spokesperson said: "The sentencing in each case will depend of the offence committed, whether there was a plea of guilty and the circumstances in that individual case."

In another case, a former bank manager who stole over £430,000 from Ulster Bank and its customers was jailed for just six months.

Grace Harshaw, from Annaghbane Road, Loughbrickland, was the manager of Ulster Bank in Tandragee.

Between February 2009 and October 2009 she stole £434,500 from the bank's vault, accounts and through fictitious personal loans.

Yesterday Judge Gemma Loughran said the sentence handed down to Johnston reflected the effect her theft would have on public confidence in the Post Office, and the need to deter other potential thieves.

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