A woman who conned a cancer-hit family out of nearly £5,000 — after falsely claiming she was terminally ill — and used it to fund a dream holiday to the United States has walked free from court.
Margaret Hood said she had only weeks to live and needed funds to travel to the US for potentially life-saving treatment, but spent it living the high life in Las Vegas and San Francisco.
On Friday Hood and accomplice Henry Fenton were handed suspended sentences after pleading guilty to the cruel deception.
They walked free despite a judge's conviction that both deserved jail for conning the Toman family from west Belfast in a cruel and elaborate scam.
Belfast Crown Court judge Tom Burgess said he would suspend their 18-month prison terms for three years because Hood was suffering from a delusional psychological disorder and to ensure the family were repaid the £4,435 they had been duped into handing over.
On Friday night the victims of the scam said the pair had “conned them and now conned the judicial system”.
Hood and Fenton targeted the Tomans in 2006 — at the same time they were nursing Frankie Toman through terminal cancer.
They falsely claimed Hood was also terminally ill, had eight weeks to live and her only chance was a pioneering treatment available in the United States.
The Tomans agreed to pay for Hood and Fenton to fly over. But they used the cash to visit San Francisco and Las Vegas.
The family even put Hood up at their home and provided funds to help her get an apartment.
The fraud involved three members of the Toman family.
Ciaran Toman told police he gave £2,450 to Hood and Fenton on two occasions after hearing their heartbreaking but bogus story, while his brother Connor handed over £585.
Their sister Roisin also donated £100 to Hood, who along with Fenton also benefited from a £1,200 money transfer.
However, the Tomans rumbled their cruel scam and contacted the police. After a lengthy legal battle, the matter came to court.
Earlier this year Hood (53), from Brooke Hall Avenue in Belfast but described as “inhabiting a world of fantasy”, pleaded guilty to six counts of deception.
Fenton, from Ballantine Gardens in Lisburn, admitted five counts of deception.
Sentencing the pair on Friday Judge Burgess said that while the sum gained was not substantial, it was obtained in breach of trust at a time when the victims were vulnerable.
“This was a nasty, cynical and unconscionable course of behaviour by these two defendants,” he said. “They preyed on a vulnerable family and they did so for financial gain.”
A defence solicitor said Hood suffered from a personality disorder called pseudologica fantastica, causing her to crave attention.
Fenton’s solicitor said his client had endured a number of “serious, if not enormous” family issues which caused him to “take his eye off the ball”.
He said Fenton had apologised to the Tomans and would be paying back the £4,435.
Ciaran Toman, whose father Frankie died from cancer a year after they had been conned, said he was angry the pair had avoided prison. He said: “The sentence doesn’t reflect what we’d hoped for, but they both admitted their guilt so we do have some form of justice.”
His brother Connor added: “They played us, they played the court and they played the system.”
Shameless... swindler took job at cancer charity while facing charges
By Adrian Rutherford
Margaret Hood was working for a leading cancer charity when she pleaded guilty to deceiving the Toman family.
She was employed by Cancer Focus NI as a shop manager since last October, but has since resigned.
During that time Hood and her accomplice Henry Fenton were already facing charges over the money they conned from the Tomans. The charity only realised Hood’s background when her callous |deceit was revealed in May. Hood — who was known to the charity as Beth Lynn — was suspended with immediate effect.
She was ordered to attend a disciplinary hearing, but resigned ahead of it.
Roisin Foster, the charity’s chief executive, confirmed Hood no longer was an employee. Ms Foster said procedures have been changed following Hood’s case.
“Cancer Focus has been supporting people with cancer in Northern Ireland for more than 40 years,” she said.
“We deplore any conduct which seeks to exploit cancer patients or their families.
“We have met a representative of the Toman family and extended our sympathy to them with regard to this incident. We always carry out police checks on people working directly with children and vulnerable adults.
“In the light of this case we have changed our policy and now carry out police checks on all applicants for shop manager posts.”
Margaret Hood, also known as Beth, from Brooke Hall Avenue in Belfast, has a long history of deception and dishonesty which dates back to the 1990s.
She has previously faked illness and undergone painful surgical procedures which were totally unnecessary.
The court was provided with detailed medical reports indicating that Hood suffered from the personality disorder ‘pseudologica fantastica’, a rare condition which causes those affected to crave attention and draw focus to themselves by telling dramatic stories.
Hood, it heard, is prone to “delusional behaviour” and “inhibits a world of fantasy”.
Hood has been before the courts regularly since 1995. Last year she was handed a 10-month suspended sentence for deception.
On Friday, the judge handed Hood 18 months in custody, suspended for three years. He said if Hood committed further offences she would not be able to rely on her condition.
A divorced father, Fenton had no criminal record and had previously worked in the gas and retail industry.
After pleading guilty to deception in May he lost his job, but on Friday the court was told he had been promised work as a sales manager.
Fenton, from Ballantine Gardens in Lisburn, met Hood in 2004 and they moved in together in 2005.
A defence solicitor blamed “a series of serious if not enormous” family issues which caused Fenton to “take his eye off the ball”.
These included his father’s death due to cancer in 2006, and his mother and sister’s subsequent diagnoses with cancer.
The judge said that although he had pleaded guilty, the first pre-sentence report showed a total lack of remorse.
Fenton was sentenced to 18 months in custody, suspended for three years, and ordered to pay back £4,435 within six months.
‘She got a buzz out of it, seeing how far she could get this to go... the look in her eyes is pure evil’
Rita Toman knew more than anyone the terrible pain and suffering wreaked by cancer. Her beloved husband Frankie was terminally ill, and in a battle he was not going to win.
So when Margaret Hood came calling one day, pleading for help after being diagnosed with the same disease, she was only too willing to do whatever she could to help.
Rita and her family opened their hearts and even their home to Hood, only to fall victim to the cruellest of deceptions.
Because Margaret Hood didn’t have cancer. Nor was she terminally ill.
Instead, her supposed suffering was merely wicked lies aimed at conning the Toman family out of their money.
Hood told them she had just eight weeks to live.
On Friday — more than six years later — she was handed an 18-month jail sentence, suspended for three years, after pleading guilty to six counts of deception.
Her accomplice Henry Fenton, also part of the heartless scam, was given the same suspended sentence after admitting five counts of deception. Fenton was also ordered to repay the £4,435 conned from the Tomans within six months.
The story of how a family’s suffering and kindness was cruelly exploited began six years ago, in March 2006, when the Tomans were still coming to terms with news that Frankie was dying from cancer.
Fenton, a well-known face in the community, brought Hood to the Tomans’ west Belfast home, telling them she was terminally ill.
Over the next three months Hood befriended Rita, preying on her kindness and vulnerability.
Along with Fenton, Hood would turn up to the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital, supposedly for treatment, while Frankie was there. Often she had bandages on her arms, and on one occasion even had a PICC line attached for a blood transfusion.
Their deceit took another callous twist in June of that year, by which stage Frankie’s condition had deteriorated rapidly.
One day, as the Tomans were walking into the Cancer Centre, they bumped into a clearly distressed and tearful Hood and Fenton.
Hood described how a consultant had just told her she had eight weeks left to live.
But her apparent anguish soon passed. Days later she told the Tomans of a miracle life-saving treatment offered by a specialist in the United States.
The problem was that Hood couldn’t afford it. So she turned to the Tomans.
In a cruel twist, Hood described how she had planned to speak to the specialist about Frankie to see if there was any life-saving treatment available to him.
“She targeted two weak points,” Ciaran Toman, Frankie’s son, told the Belfast Telegraph.
“One, she preyed on my mum’s good nature, and, worst of all, gave us hope that there was some hope for my dad.
“We were so desperate, I gave Margaret Hood the money to go to America. It was the last chance of trying to save my own father. There really was no choice.”
Hood and Fenton spent the money holidaying in Las Vegas and San Francisco.
But the evil couple were not finished yet. Hood’s lies, and the Tomans’ torment, continued.
After arriving home, Hood claimed she had fallen out with Fenton and been abandoned. With just weeks to live, she was all alone and had nowhere to stay.
Rita took pity and, after speaking to her dying husband, offered Hood refuge.
“While she slept in my parents’ marital bed, my mother slept on an armchair downstairs beside my father while he was on his deathbed,” added Ciaran.
“Margaret Hood knew full well how ill my father was.
“One night the nursing team came to administer drugs to my father and she started crying. She kept asking is this the way it’s going to be for her. The nurses gave her an emergency number in case her tumour burst.
“The medics were fooled, even the manager of the Northern Ireland Hospice who came to our house and had an in-depth conversation with her about blood counts.
“If they were fooled, what chance did we have?”
However, as time went on the Tomans became suspicious and other people began voicing concerns. The Tomans wanted Hood out, but still hadn’t realised her cancer was a con. So, rather than see her stranded, they gave her money to rent an apartment.
“There was my father, dying but surrounded by his family and all the love and care he wanted, whereas this poor woman had no one,” said Ciaran.
But slowly Hood’s lies were starting to unfold.
Ciaran asked for the money which the family had lent her to be handed back. Hood said it was in her father’s account, forgetting that she told the Tomans her father was dead.
“She started tripping herself up with her lies,” Ciaran said.
The final piece of evidence came when Hood claimed she had to go to the Marie Curie Centre for a blood transfusion.
Finally, Ciaran went to Marie Curie, but they had never heard of Hood.
“At that stage I realised not only had she conned us out of money, but had pretended she had cancer. I felt physically sick,” he said.
“Forget the money, that (the cancer) was the worst of it.”
The Tomans went to the PSNI, and to help the investigation they got Frankie to make a statement weeks before he finally passed away in late 2007. But it meant telling the dying man that the woman who had been invited into his house, and in whom he confided, was a con artist.
“The hardest thing was my father believed the whole way through that she was suffering the same as he was,” Ciaran added.
“He opened up to her, told her things he couldn’t tell us.”
However, police were unable to make any progress.
Determined to get justice, the Tomans went to the Police Ombudsman but were again frustrated. They contacted the Public Prosecution Service, the media and even hired a private detective.
Their persistence paid off. Eventually, in May 2012, Margaret Hood and Henry Fenton pleaded guilty to deception.
On Friday they were given suspended sentences.
For the Tomans, however, the agony continues. Their trust and good nature was exploited in the worst possible way.
“They invaded a very private time for our family and then totally abused our trust when the only thing we should have been thinking about was getting my father through his final days,” said Ciaran.
“One of the police officers described Margaret Hood as one of the most evil people she had met, and that’s true. The look in her eyes, she is pure evil.
“She got a buzz out of it, seeing how far she could get this to go. Both of them did.
“They were hooked on misery.”