A CROOKED estate agent borrowed more than £150,000 from friends and clients when the property crash threatened to destroy his business in Bovey Tracey, a court has been told.
Russell Baker, 59, had a reputation as a trustworthy property seller in the town before his debts started to mount and he began 'borrowing from Peter to pay Paul', Exeter Crown Court was told.
He failed to pay almost all of the money back and now works for a catering company while living with his wife in a mobile home in a pub car park.
Baker, who ran Ashby's Estate Agents (Devon) Ltd, admitted nine counts of fraud.
Among his victims were a couple who he duped into loaning him £22,500 for a deposit on a house.
Baker, of Green Lane, Ilsington, Newton Abbot, was sentenced to 20 months in jail, suspended for two years. Recorder Noel Casey admitted the sentence was lenient but said the disgraced estate agent had shown remorse for what he had done and tried to make amends by selling a house and some land to pay back his victims.
The offences took place in 2013 and 2014.
The court was told Baker's business 'dropped off a cliff' after the financial crisis in 2008. He expected the housing market to pick up in the future but in the meantime faced a cash flow problem and began asking people for loans.
Prosecutor Tom Bradnock said: "In the course of running his business from Fore Street in Bovey Tracey he borrowed significant sums of money from friends and acquaintances.
"He made undertakings about repayments of these so-called loans which he failed to honour. It was a pattern of behaviour which lasted for at least 20 months."
Mr Bradnock outlined the offences against seven victims.
He said in January 2013 Baker borrowed £15,000 from a former client. The money was paid into a business account belonging to Baker. He transferred £5,000 of that cash into his personal account on the same day.
Despite promising to pay it back in one month 'there was never a real prospect' of him doing so, said Mr Bradnock.
"By January 2013 he was already heavily in debt," he added.
"Throughout he was in fact robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Over the course of the next 20 months he borrowed sums of between £2,000 and £25,000 from friends and neighbours, always promising to pay it back within a specified period of time.
In total he borrowed £157,250 and repaid less than £9,000.
Among his victims were a property-hunting couple who went to Ashby's Estate Agents to buy a house. The purchase was agreed but Baker told the buyers he needed a 10 per cent deposit to secure the sale.
"This was wholly untrue," said the prosecutor.
They transferred £22,500 into his personal account, £6,000 of which was repaid after his arrest.
Baker initially told police he had not committed any fraud and a trial date was set. He eventually admitted his guilt to nine offences.
Joss Ticehurst, mitigating, said: "This was not a man hell-bent on stealing and defrauding people left right and centre. He had for many years been a successful businessman who acted with integrity.
"The frauds arise out of the economic circumstances. There was a significant downturn in the housing market in 2008 and his business dropped off a cliff.
"But there was always a sense there was going to be a turning point when house sales would resume. It wasn't clear when but there would be one."
As his situation got worse Baker he 'buried his head in the sand' and continued borrowing from one person to pay the next.
"He found himself out of his depth with the the financial crash of his business and didn't look to get external help," said Mr Ticehurst.
"He was foolish and reckless and it has led to him standing in the criminal court."
Baker said he was ashamed of what he had done but intended to pay the money back. He had suffered depression at the time he committed the crimes.
Baker managed to keep the scale of his business failings a secret from his wife.
"His world was collapsing around him," said Mr Ticehurst.
He said Baker had the option of declaring himself bankrupt but did not because he wanted to have assets to repay his victims.
"He's wiped himself out financially," said his barrister.
"He's ashamed he led people a merry dance and ashamed he stands in the criminal court," he added. "Not for a moment did he think he would be a man to do that."
Recorder Casey said the frauds were not sophisticated. He said a pre-sentence report showed Baker was sorry for what he done.
He said Baker deserved to go to prison but was willing to be lenient.
He told him: "You have had a somewhat favourable outcome today. This amount of money ordinarily leads to an immediate custody. It is your conduct in the last six months combined with other factors which allows the court to take a lenient approach at this stage."