A care manager who plundered £71,000 from her trusting and vulnerable clients has been jailed.
Zoe Coates, 41, sobbed and snivelled in the dock at Preston Crown Court as Judge Simon Newell sentenced her to 30 months.
She had been on a trip of a lifetime to America with victim Kerry Lee-Woods, while her husband, John Woods, whom Coates was also stealing from, could not go because there was not enough money in his account.
In a personal statement, the 53-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, told the court he “cried” because he could not go to Disneyland with his wife and friends.
Families and victims were in the public gallery as the court heard how she helped herself to more than £71,000 from vulnerable people who trusted her.
Coates, of Lancaster Road, Garstang, was employed in a managerial role for a charity called HFT providing local support services for people with learning disabilities.
Jeremy Grout-Smith, prosecuting, said: “On April 29, 2014, Coates went to Leyland police inquiry desk in effect to hand herself in for stealing from clients.
“The defendant had admitted to Sophie Wood and her parents she had been stealing from Sophie. However the other victims had no knowledge.”
Defending Coates, Richard English said: “ This is a tragic case on so many different levels. Nothing I say should be confused with seeking to excuse her actions. It is tragic for those who lost money and lost their trust. But it is also tragic to find herself at 41 in the court with her family and her parents, knowing she will not be going home today, knowing the world will know of what she has done, the shame – justified undoubtedly – and the ridicule that will undoubtedly follow.
He said she suffered depression from the breakdown of a relationship and added the money was not used for “personal enrichment”.
She has sold her home and the proceeds seized by the police to be paid back to her victims.
Judge Simon Newell said: “Each of the people you stole from were people who were being looked after and cared for by HFT, the firm that employed you. Each of those people has substantial disabilities. They were people who required a considerable degree of support. Their finances had to be kept in order, they had to be managed by you it is a substantial position of trust.
“Over a period of six years its clear you abused that trust with the extent of taking substantial monies from them. As a result of what you have done each of the reports suggests these victims have considerable difficulty now in trusting people who are looking after them and thus their lives is becoming increasingly fraught.”
The heartbroken mum of a Kerry Lee-Woods spoke of an “ultimate betrayal” after Coates swindled tens of thousands of pounds from her.
Against all odds, Kerry, 47, has overcome her condition to get married and live in supported accommodation with her husband John Wood, 54, who has cerebral palsy.
The pair, who wed in a touching ceremony in 2006 after meeting at the Trades Hall in the town, lived in accommodation in Bamber Bridge under the care of disgraced Zoe Coates, who admitted six counts of stealing from clients.
Kerry’s mother Maureen, says she was horrified when police knocked on her door and told her Coates – whom they considered a family friend – had been stealing from Kerry and John’s bank account.
It is the latest tragic blow for the family. Maureen’s youngest daughter Nikola died aged 20 after three heart and lung transplants, and her husband Harry died suddenly from a ruptured aorta five months before Kerry’s wedding.
The great grandmother, 71, of Mounsey Road, Bamber Bridge, told the Evening Post: “Zoe was involved with Kerry and John from the beginning which is why we feel so incredibly hurt and betrayed. She was welcomed into our home and was like one of the family, considered a friend.
“She had advised us about the wedding, because I was grieving for my husband, and very up and down.”
However relatives started to question why the couple’s bank statements were never available.”
Maureen added: “We were puzzled when John was supposed to go with the other residents in the house on a trip to the USA, but was told he couldn’t go and he would “disrupt” things. We suspect it’s because there wasn’t enough money in his bank account.
“We put our complete trust in her - and that is on of the hardest things to do, to trust someone with a vulnerable child. I can’t understand why she would do this.
“Kerry and John know what has happened - it has been terrible and unsettling for both of them. John was crying, and it has made Kerry wary and aggressive toward other staff.”
Victim Sophie Green, whose mum and dad raised the alarm and confronted Coates, sobbed outside court as she said: “The day after my mum and dad raised the alarm she picked me up. She would not let me out of the car, she was scaring me saying ‘don’t you dare tell your mum and dad’. I just wanted out of the car. I keep having flashbacks about it.”
Her mum Kay Green, of Smiths Croft, Leyland, said it came to light when they had a bill for Sophie’s care costs of £3,000 that had not been paid, and found her account was overdrawn. They drove to HFT’s offices and demanded an explanation.
Jackie Tait, divisional director at Hft, said: “We were extremely disappointed to discover Zoe Coates had breached the trust of the people she supported, their families, and her former colleagues in such a fundamental way. We deeply regret the impact caused by this theft on the people directly affected. We have been working closely with the police to ensure that these people have not suffered any financial loss.”
A Lancashire police spokesman said: “Zoe Coates has today been sentenced for these despicable offences which were committed against vulnerable victims who trusted her with their day to day care. She abused this position of trust for her own gain, stealing large sums of money from the victims.”