A Skipton financial adviser who stole thousands of pounds from an 80-year-old widow has been sent to prison for two-and-a-half years.

Stephen Ward, who operated from an office in Newmarket Street, Skipton and then from his home address in Otterburn, near Gargrave, admitted stealing £57,000 from two clients and attempting to steal £25,600 between September 1997 and July 1999.

Ward pleaded guilty to 26 counts of theft, attempted theft, forgery, and carrying on an investment business contrary to the Financial Services Act 1986.

At Bradford Crown Court, prosecutor Martin Rudland said Ward, who traded under his full name John Henry Stephen Ward as JHS Financial Services, was in a position of trust and knew the clients when he committed the offences.

"They relied on the defendant for investment advice," he told the court.

Mr Rudland said the first victim, Kathleen Hanson, and her late husband relied upon their investments as income in their retirement. Every six months £5,000 was to be paid to each of them.

"After the death of Mr Hanson, the defendant retained any money payable to Mr Hanson for his own benefit," said Mr Rudland.

He added that Ward forged Mrs Hanson's signature to open a bank account so he could pay the cheques into it and cash them.

This happened on a number of occasions between September 1998 and July 1999 until Mrs Hanson's family became suspicious and reported their concerns to the bank and the police, who stopped Ward withdrawing any further money.

Mr Rudland said he made a further attempt to steal from the Hansons when he wrote a letter forging Mrs Hanson's signature attempting to cash £20,000 worth of premium bonds held on the Isle of Man. This transaction was refused.

The second victim, Judith Ann Oldham, had been dealing with the defendant for seven years before the offences against her were revealed.

On December 4 1998 Mrs Oldham gave Ward two cheques for £10,000 to be invested in financial companies Mercury and Newton.

"Having received the cheques from Mrs Oldham, the defendant put them into his own account. Mrs Oldham believed her investments were safe because of forged documents he produced to reassure her," said Mr Rudland.

Ward was arrested in July 1999 after the police were contacted by the Hanson family. He admitted the offences against her.

Eighteen days later, whilst on bail, he carried out further offences against Mrs Oldham.

On August 3 1999 the defendant received two more cheques from her to be invested in Perpetual and Shroders worth £10,000 and £5,000 which he kept.

Again he forged two documents from the companies to convince her the investments were sound.

Ward also pleaded guilty to forging his wife Elizabeth's signature on a personal loan from the Halifax Building Society from which he obtained £7,000, and carrying on an investment business between December 1998 and October 1999 contrary to the Financial Services Act 1986.

In mitigation, Andrew Haslam said: "It is quite clear that with the amounts of money, the given time, and breach of trust, a custodial sentence will be at the forefront of the court's mind."

He added that the defendant was 47, had no previous convictions and had pleaded guilty at the first opportunity.

Mr Haslam described the events as a "personal tragedy" and told the court how Ward's business, set up in 1995, had been struggling and that the family home had been repossessed in 1990.

"Through his own dishonest endeavours he began to make money by stealing it from the poor Mr and Mrs Hanson and Mrs Oldham," said Mr Haslam.

He added that the money obtained went on paying rent for his family's home, that he had not lived extravagantly, and that he would never be able to work in the financial service industry again.

Sentencing Ward, Mr Assistant Recorder Attwooll said: "It is a tragedy to see a man such as you before the court for this type of offending."

He added that the amounts of money involved put the offences in the serious category and that they were aggravated by the fact that Mrs Hanson was in her 80s and relied on him in her retirement.

"This was a cleverly executed series of offences," he said.

He was also ordered to pay £644 restitution and to return the computer that he bought with some of the stolen money. Both victims have received some compensation.

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