Couple sold goods to pay for son’s cancer treatment but it was a lie

Christchurch: The way Simone Wright and her husband, Paul Bennett, conned people out of thousands of dollars can hardly be described as sophisticated.

It was quite simple. Make up a sob story about a cancer-stricken child fighting for his life in hospital, and take advantage of people’s benevolence and sympathy.

Wright – also known as Simone Tulley Williams or Simone Smith – was on Wednesday found guilty of seven charges of obtaining by deception involving just under NZ$35,000 ($32,000). She will be sentenced on Friday.

Simone Wright and Paul Bennett when they were still married.Credit:via Stuff

Wright’s now ex-husband, Paul James Bennett aka James Lochead, David Kite and Paul Williams, last month pleaded guilty to seven representative fraud charges totalling NZ$580,000. He was sentenced to 38 months’ imprisonment.

Wright and Bennett were married in Australia in 2002 and later travelled to New Zealand on a yacht. They entered the country without going through immigration which was, according to Wright, Bennett’s decision.

Simone Wright during her trial in the Christchurch District Court.Credit:John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff

In late May 2008, the pair moved to Napier where they lived in rented accommodation. Neither of them worked and they spent most of their time together.

During Wright’s short judge-alone trial this week, there was no sign of the camaraderie the two undoubtedly once shared.

She vehemently denied ever helping her ex-husband defraud anyone and said he had done it all on his own, while she was blissfully unaware of what her bank accounts were used for.

In late May 2008, two accounts were registered with the popular NZ online marketplace Trade Me: one under the name Susan Wright using the username SW70, and another under the name Shayne Wright using the username Shayne61.

During this time, Wright opened bank accounts with both ANZ and BNZ in Napier. She already had an existing account with ASB bank.

On May 27 they threw their first bait into the waters of online sales. They used the SW70 profile to advertise an outdoor spa on Trade Me along with the words “must help to pay family medical bills”.

An online bidder won the auction and emailed the seller to arrange for payment. The victim deposited NZ$4165 into Wright’s ANZ bank account as directed and emails were exchanged to arrange for the spa to be transported to buyer.

The seller stated they were “still at Starship hospital with a son on life support”. Several emails were exchanged about the boy’s wellbeing and the buyer expressed her best wishes to the boy’s parents.

The buyer was then told for an extra NZ$350 the spa can be delivered to her front door, and she happily obliged.

The spa never arrived and the sellers were never heard from again.

A similar version of these events would take place six more times within a few weeks.

One of the victims bought a Suzuki quad bike and a silage wagon from Shayne61 for $16,500. While speaking to the seller on the phone, the seller told him it might be hard to get hold of him and his partner over the next few days as they were at Starship hospital with their nephew who had brain cancer.

The buyer never received his quad bike or silage wagon, and the sellers conveniently disappeared.

The woman on the phone

But it was the sale of a Kawasaki motorcycle that likely sealed Wright’s fate.

The motorcycle was listed on Trade Me in late May 2008, with the advertisement stating “our son has cancer and can no longer ride his pride and joy”. It stated the bike had been bought in February as a birthday present for the boy.

One of the complainants said he was contacted by the seller after being outbid for the motorcycle, and was told the original sale had fallen through.

The victim said the man on the phone identified himself as John, and the complainant agreed to pay NZ$2650 for the bike and delivery.

The buyer was later emailed bank account details from someone called Susan, who said they were John’s partner.

When the buyer called John to tell him that the money had been paid into the bank account, a woman answered the phone. She said her name was Susan and that she was happy to help.

The buyer said he had a “friendly discussion” with Susan by phone, and she told him they planned to use the money for alternative treatment for their son who had brain cancer. He said the story especially resonated with him as he had lost a family member to brain cancer in the past and was the father of a young son.

“It all sounded legitimate,” he said.

But it wasn’t. The buyer never saw the motorcycle, or his NZ$2650, again.

During Wright’s trial, she denied ever talking on the phone with someone about the sale of a motorcycle or a sick son in hospital. It must’ve been Bennett who put on a woman’s voice, she said.

“Not a chance,” said the victim.

Judge Paul Kellar later said this aspect turned out to be an important part of the case. Being satisfied that the person on the phone was indeed Wright, the Crown had already gone a long way in proving her involvement with the deception.

The judge said it did not make sense that Bennett would pretend to be a woman on the phone since he had already spoken to the buyer before when he identified himself as John.

The bank accounts

As the proceeds from their fraudulent dealings rolled in, Wright and Bennett moved quickly to get their hands on the money. Wright withdrew about NZ$25,000 over two days from the different bank accounts before one of the accounts was frozen.

A significant amount of money, the Crown prosecutor submitted, and certainly enough to make anyone question why so much cash needed to be withdrawn.

Wright said she didn’t regard it as significant and therefore didn’t question it. She told the court Bennett drove her to the banks with step-by-step instructions on how to withdraw the money. He waited outside in the car while she was inside and she handed over the money to him when she got back in the car.

It was to be used for “living expenses”. Bennett always took care of all the bills, she said.

Wright claimed she thought Bennett was transferring money into her accounts from overseas. She said she had asked Bennett why he was transferring money to her account, and he told her that was “the way it has to be done right now”.

It was all part of the elaborate lies he had told her throughout their marriage, she insisted.

Bennet allegedly said he once worked as a helicopter pilot for Hollywood actor Russell Crowe, but had to give up the job after being kidnapped at gunpoint in Crowe’s helicopter by members of an Australian criminal organisation. He told her he had worked for the CIA, and that there were “bad people in the British government” who were after him. He had to use a different name because he was in a witness protection program.

Outlandish stories – but she believed them all, she said.

Even under intense cross-examination by Crown prosecutor Penny Brown, Wright continued to plead ignorance. She claimed she had “virtually no computer skills” at the time and did not know how to set up an email account, register a Trade Me account or do internet banking.

She wasn’t working and had never got the chance to learn those skills like people usually do, she said.

Judge Kellar was not convinced. He said he couldn’t accept that Wright did not know what the purpose of the bank accounts was.

The judge said he found it highly unlikely that Wright would have agreed to open bank accounts in her name on her husband’s instructions and then withdraw large sums of money from these accounts without asking questions.

“I am therefore sure that Ms Wright was in cahoots with Mr Bennett. Put bluntly she and Mr Bennett told a cruel lie about the reasons for selling the goods. I am also sure that Ms Wright knew that the representations were lies. She knew they did not have the goods they were purporting to sell.”

The couple returned to Australia but were brought back to New Zealand to face the charges, Bennett in 2016 and Wright in 2018. A couple using the same names was detained entering Sydney on a stolen yacht in 2015, when the pair was also wanted for alleged fraud.

Wright has been remanded in custody.

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