A DIRECTOR at a Coventry solicitors’ firm had to take out a personal loan to replace tens of thousands of pounds stolen by a trusted employee from dead clients’ estates.
Thieving Lucy Gunton had posed as the beneficiaries of two wills to get cash payments of almost £70,000 over a six-month period, and blew much of it on expensive clothes and handbags.
But she was eventually caught out because letters to the solicitors from both supposed beneficiaries had identical typing errors in the firm’s postcode.
Despite the overwhelming evidence against her, Gunton (39) of London Road, Coventry, had denied three charges of fraud.
But she was jailed for three years and two months after changing her pleas to guilty at a pre-trial hearing.
Prosecutor Tim Sapwell said that in 2003, Gunton, who was Lucy Dainty at that time prior to her marriage, was taken on as a secretary by Coventry solicitors Bate Edmonds Snape, now BES.
A law graduate, she rose to become a paralegal executive dealing with wills and probate at the firm under the supervision of managing partner Nick Taylor.
But in 2017 the Solicitors Regulation Authority received a complaint about her in relation to a probate she had handled – and as a result of their findings, she was dismissed and barred from working for any solicitors.
Mr Taylor and another director, Lawrence Warnock, then looked into Gunton’s case files – including those relating to the estates of Ivy Holden and Brian Gorman.
Ms Holden, in addition to several charitable bequests, had left her estate to members of her family, and in particular to her nephew Stephen Lillycrop, who lived in America.
There was a delay while a tax rebate was sorted out, and when Mr Lillycrop contacted her about the will, Gunton obtained his personal details.
Then on February 28 BES received a hand-delivered letter purporting to be from Mr Lillycrop saying he was staying at an address in Devon and asking for a cash payment of £26,500 from his aunt’s estate by the following afternoon.
It was written in persuasive terms, quoting advice which had supposedly come from the Law Society’s ethics helpline, and thanking the firm ‘for the help Lucy has provided.’
Mr Taylor had reservations, so asked Gunton to carry out some checks – and she then claimed the Law Society had told her they could be subject to a complaint if they did not pay up.
So Mr Taylor withdrew the cash and kept the money in his office until Gunton brazenly asked for it, claiming Mr Lillycrop was due in imminently to collect it.
Three months later Gunton claimed that Mr Lillycrop had asked for a further £26,500 cash advance on his inheritance – which was again withdrawn and handed to Gunton to pass to him.
But when they were checking the files, Mr Taylor and Mr Warnock noticed a mistake in the spelling of Lillycrop and that the letter gave BES’s postcode as Cv1 2EY, with a lower case v.
Another letter supposedly from Mrs Ann Gorman asking for a £16,750 cash advance from her late husband Brian’s estate to pay for some building work was almost identically formatted – and with the same error in the postcode, said Mr Sapwell.
The letter ended with Mrs Gorman, who has herself since died, supposedly saying: “You’re worth your weight in gold, Lucy.”
Mr Warnock contacted Miss Gorman’s half-brother who said she could never have written the letter because she relied on him to help her deal with banks and solicitors, was not computer-literate, and had not been having any building work done.
The police were contacted, and when Gunton’s home was searched, officers found high-value clothes and handbags she had bought with the money she had obtained.
But she denied the offences, claiming the money going into her and her husband’s account had been gifts from friends and family towards their wedding and honeymoon, as well as a payment not to make a complaint about supposedly being bullied at work.
Her husband Russell Gunton was also arrested on suspicion of possessing criminal property, although no evidence was offered against him, and he explained that she had told him the cash she had brought home in brown envelopes was bonuses she had received.
Mr Sapwell added that Mr Taylor, who felt ‘shocked and betrayed,’ had been personally liable for the loss of client money, and had had to take out a loan to reimburse the account.
Sophie Murray, defending, said: “Getting to today has been a very difficult journey for her because she has had to admit her guilt. She has struggled to come to terms with what she’s done and to admit it.”
Miss Murray said Gunton had always struggled with her weight, weighing 27 stone until she had a gastric band fitted two years ago, and she had been bullied over it.
“She got into a relationship with her husband, and wanted to have a life she had never had, and she was living in a type of fantasy land by using other people’s money.”
Jailing Gunton, Judge Sarah Buckingham told her: “You knew how much money they had, and you decided to take some of that money for yourself.
“In both letters you had the audacity to include praise of yourself. Perhaps it was part of the smoke-screen.”
The judge observed that when Mr Taylor had questioned the request for cash for Mr Lillycrop, Gunton had told a blatant lie, and she told her: “If you had an ounce of shame about what you were doing, that was the time to desist, but you did it again.”