Charity worker used dead kids' names to steal thousands of pounds

Photo shows Heidi Bucknall
-Credit: (Image: Nottinghamshire Police)

A charity worker from Nottingham sold Alton Towers and Legoland tickets meant for terminally-ill children on eBay. Nottingham Crown Court heard how when the gifted free tickets dried up due to Covid, Heidi Bucknall then made grant applications for cash in the names of fabricated or deceased youngsters so she could pocket the cash.

In total, over six years, the Bestwood 32-year-old fraudulently stole more than £30,000 from the QMC-based charity where she worked as an administration assistant. Now she has been jailed for two years and four months.

Sentencing her, Judge Steven Coupland said: “It is difficult to think of a more appalling series of offences. You, out of everyone, well understood the good work the charity that employed you did for people because you were a cancer survivor yourself.

“This was an appalling betrayal of terminally-ill children and you deprived them and their families of a little bit of light. Your theft was from a company but in real terms it was stealing from those who the charity was here to help.”

Abigail Hill, prosecuting, said: “Between May 22, 2015, and April 22, 2021, this defendant systematically and deliberately defrauded the charity PASIC – the Parents’ Association for Seriously Ill Children - to the tune of just over £30,000.

“The charity, which is based on the children’s oncology ward at the QMC in Nottingham, is relatively small in size, with only five members of staff on the payroll. But they provide invaluable financial and emotional support to families at a very vulnerable time, both at the QMC and at Leicester Royal Infirmary.

“The defendant, herself a survivor of childhood cancer, exploited the very charity which had once supported her in two principal ways. Firstly, by selling off on eBay gifted vouchers to theme parks and attractions designed to provide suffering children and their families the opportunity to spend precious time together.

“And secondly by inventing sick and indeed deceased children so that she could pocket the financial support that those fabricated families would be eligible for.”

Mrs Hill said Bucknall initially began helping out with the charity as a teenager, before she became employed as their administrative assistant in August 2012. She said this was a paid, albeit part-time, role and her main tasks involved booking events and organising parties and entertainment.

The prosecutor said the defendant would also organise visits for families of sick children to theme parks and she went on to be authorised to manage payments to suppliers. Mrs Hill said: “The defendant had direct dealings with Merlin Magic Wands, which is the charity arm of Merlin Entertainment which runs various theme parks including Alton Towers.

“Through these dealings, Merlin Magic Wands gifted PASIC a significant number of free passes to their various establishments with a view to these being passed on to suffering families which the charity was supporting.

“On April 21, 2021, the CEO of PASIC, Louise Towse, received an email from Erin Woods who was the charity manager at Merlin Magic Wands advising that a number of their tickets which had previously been gifted to PASIC were being advertised and sold on eBay.

“Further investigation of the eBay account also showed that three thermometers belonging to PASIC provided by Boots and intended for suffering families had also been previously sold via the online auction platform.

“The eBay account was traced and linked to a PayPal account in the name of Jackie Bucknall. One of the Alton Towers tickets being sold was then traced as having been gifted to PASIC, at which time the connection was made between the name Jackie Bucknall and this defendant. All of the tickets being advertised at that time were then voided by Merlin.

“The defendant was invited to a meeting with PASIC to discuss a matter of potential fraud and during this meeting she made a number of admissions which included accepting that she had been selling gifted Alton Towers tickets since June 2015.

“The defendant went on to admit selling tickets to a number of other local East Midlands family attractions which had been bought and paid for by PASIC, in addition to those gifted by Merlin.”

Mrs Hill said Bucknall was dismissed from her role in April 2021 and later told police she had got into debt. She said: “On August 23, 2021, a support worker contacted [chief exec] Ms Towse to indicate that a number of emails had bounced back when she had attempted to email the charity’s families regarding an upcoming visit to a theme park. Not wanting the families in question to miss out, the support worker made attempts to phone these families but to no avail.

“Further investigation revealed that a number of these patients had been fabricated by the defendant and simply did not exist. They had however received grants from PASIC.

“In total, over a two-year period, and through the fabrication of terminally ill patients, the defendant had obtained 10 compassionate grants of £750 each and 10 standard grants of £200 each making a total of £9,500. The majority of these payments were made within Covid.

“The presumption being that the defendant’s income from selling theme park tickets had dried up due to their enforced closure and so she had sought an alternative revenue stream.”

Mrs Hill said: “Upon assessing PASIC’s bank records, it became clear that of the £9,500 obtained by the defendant she had made arrangements for some of the funds to be paid into the accounts of two other people, both of whom she was romantically involved with. The crown submits that this was a planned attempt to conceal her actions.”

Bucknall, of Tyburn Close, pleaded guilty to charges of fraud by abuse of position and concealing criminal property. She has no previous convictions of any kind.

Gareth Gimson, mitigating, said his client had been in an abusive relationship with a person who would demand she give them money “so they could go to the pub” and that the debt she incurred as a result led to her gambling and getting further in debt. He said she now works at a school doing one-to-one work at breakfast and after-school clubs.

He said: “On any level this is awful, it can’t be suggested otherwise. She has stolen from a children’s cancer charity. Walk a mile in her shoes - the walls came tumbling in. There is shame about what she has done but she admitted it in interview.

“She has lived through three years of absolute fear waiting for this moment. This is not a crime committed by a cynical member of staff. She herself was a victim of childhood cancer.”