Charity thief faked cancer

Fiona Barnes, con woman who stole from Space Centre
Fiona Barnes, con woman who stole from Space Centre
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AN EX-charity worker faked terminal cancer to avoid facing up to her crimes – which had left a disabled help centre days from closure.

Space Centre worker Fiona Barnes admitted the theft of £24,713 from the Preston charity, which she masked by faking documents indicating grants of £800,000 were available.

She also pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice in relation to bogus documents she gave to the court claiming she had cancer. The alleged offences span a period between December 31, 2011, and February 1, 2012.

Barnes, 54, of Bridgend, Dunblane, Perthshire, entered her pleas before Preston Crown Court after a four-year ordeal for the charity.

For more than 20 years the Space Centre has been providing vital services for severely disabled people across Lancashire but says Barnes’ crimes nearly brought its work to an end.

Centre manager Alison Birch said: “The forged grant offers nearly led Space to closure. We had commissioned building work on the strength of those pledges.”

Barnes is set to be sentenced on September 22.

In September 2012. the charity was horrified to discover it was £500,000 in debt, and had no funds to pay builders for work on its project to expand facilities for severely disabled people.

Bogus paperwork about nonexistent grants had been produced to mask the fact Barnes had stolen £24,700.

It had led the organisation to think ample funding was available for its expansion project and so it pressed ahead with building work.

Barnes, who was nicknamed Raven by her co-workers, obtained employment with the charity as a fundraiser in 2010, saying she and her lecturer husband were planning to move from Scotland to Lancaster so he could get work at the local university.

It was her role to apply to trust and grant funders to raise money for more sensory facilities in larger premises as the charity already could not meet the demand for sessions for people with disabilities.

Her move to Lancashire never happened – but Barnes continued to work from home on behalf of the charity.

Centre manager Alison Birch recalls: “Ms Barnes initially secured a large grant which enabled us to buy the former Willows Child Development Centre to extend the existing Space building next door.

“She also secured other genuine grants to develop our new project and also a potential Heritage Lottery Grant to preserve the Thomas Mawson gardens behind.

“Therefore, the trustees and staff at Space thought she was doing an amazing job and totally believed her when she produced letters purporting to be from Trust funders to confirm that there was an additional £800,000 pledged to pay for the building conversion and specialist equipment for new sensory facilities.”

But 200 miles away, Barnes was spinning an intricate web of deception, hiding the theft of tens of thousands of pounds by forging convincing documents to make it look like she had secured additional funding – which never existed.

She left in July 2012 and within three months the horrified charity discovered the grant cash was a fiction. Alison adds: “It still makes me feel sick when I talk about it. She’s an accomplished con artist.

“We went through 12 trusts trying to find the money and realised we could not pay the builders, two weeks before they were due to complete the job.

“That was one of the blackest days of my life.

“Just two months before that day, in June 2012, we had attended her leaving do. I stood up and gave a lovely speech, and she was given vouchers. She thrived on sympathy and attention. She sat there and accepted them, knowing less than two months later we would be virtually bankrupt.

“At this time we did not understand why she had fabricated that the grants were forthcoming as there did not seem to be a motive for her to do this.

“We later discovered that she had in fact stolen a large sum of money by forging invoices and cheque signatures and the grant applications were the cover she needed to do this.

“It was in effect the forged grant offers that so nearly led Space to closure, as we had commissioned necessary work on the strength of those pledges.

“The contracts were nearing completion so we were left unable to pay the builders or sensory specialist companies for their work.”