A debt-ridden Brighouse woman who stole almost £50,000 from a Halifax-based travel firm has narrowly avoided an immediate prison sentence.
Natalie Lee, 21, walked from Bradford Crown Court today (Thursday) after a judge decided to suspend her 12-month sentence for two years after hearing how she breached the trust placed in her by Sunmaster Limited.
Judge Jonathan Rose explained that he was not locking up Lee immediately after taking account of the fact that there was no evidence of any of the money being frittered away on holidays, cars or fancy clothes.
He also said Lee, of Liland Lane, Brighouse, had no previous convictions and had demonstrated her remorse from the moment she was quizzed about the missing money by her employer earlier this year.
Judge Rose said the defendant, who admitted the theft charge at her first appearance before Calderdale magistrates, had also started the process of paying back the stolen cash.
“There will be some who think that you’re getting away with it...they will be wrong,” said Judge Rose.
“You’re not getting away with it because I believe a high level of punishment needs to go hand-in-hand with the suspended sentence.”
The judge told a tearful Lee that she would have to do 250 hours unpaid work and he warned her that if she missed a single hour her case would be brought back before him.
“I will send you to prison the next time I see you do you understand?” the judge told Lee.
“You have been fortunate today in not going to prison. You will not have another opportunity to avoid the clang of the prison gate.”
Prosecutor Louise Pryke told the court how Lee was employed as a customer service agent who had been given the authority to refund customers.
In January her supervisor discovered a refund payment had been made to a customer that did not exist and further enquiries revealed that Lee had authorised more than 40 fraudulent refunds between February 2014 and January this year.
The court heard that in total the “fictitious” customers were refunded £48,451.91, but it was discovered that Lee had in fact transferred the cash into five bank accounts held by her and one belonging to her boyfriend, who was not involved in the offending.
Miss Pryke said when Lee was questioned about the thefts Lee cooperated fully with the investigation and said she had nothing to show for the money she had taken.
Barrister Kirstie Watson, for Lee, said the couple had payday loan debts of about £20,000 at the time of the offending and there was no evidence of her client living an extravagant lifestyle with the stolen money.
Miss Watson said Lee had demonstrated genuine remorse for her offending and any immediate prison sentence would have a profound impact on her and would result in her losing her new job.
Judge Rose described Lee’s offending as “wanton and persistent criminality” and said the loss of nearly £50,000 could have put other people’s jobs in jeopardy.
He said the case had involved a substantial amount of money which had gone through Lee’s hands like sand or water.
“I’m quite clear from what I have read and the eloquence of your counsel that this was offending that started through desperation and spiralled downwards because you couldn’t see a way out.”