How County Durham shopkeeper defrauded woman in 90s out of savings worth £6.5k

Former shopkeeper at Woodham Village Store, Ponnampalam Jeyapalan, jailed for defrauding elderly customer       Picture: DURHAM CONSTABULARY/THE NORTHERN ECHO <i>(Image: Durham Constabulary/The Northern Echo)</i>
Former shopkeeper at Woodham Village Store, Ponnampalam Jeyapalan, jailed for defrauding elderly customer Picture: DURHAM CONSTABULARY/THE NORTHERN ECHO (Image: Durham Constabulary/The Northern Echo)

A trusted local shopkeeper took advantage of the vulnerability of an elderly customer, helping himself to more that £6,000 from her savings account.

Durham Crown Court heard that while supposedly assisting the isolated regular customer, who was in her 90s and suffering progressively with memory loss, Ponnampalam Jeyapalan obtained her bank details to make withdrawals for himself over a period of up to ten months during the peak of the Covid pandemic.

After his offending came to light, in April 2021, checks revealed the sums involved in his illicit withdrawals amounted to £6,513 while he was running Woodham Village Store, in Newton Aycliffe.

The court was told Jeyapalan initially gave the explanation that the complainant had given him permission to use her bank account.

Read more: County Durham fish seller fleeced £100,000 out of vulnerable customers

He denied a charge of fraud at his first crown court appearance, in early November, last year, when a trial was fixed to take place this week.

But the 48-year-old defendant, of Geneva Drive, Darlington, changed his plea to guilty at a hearing in early December.

The Northern Echo:
The Northern Echo:

The case was adjourned pending preparation of a background report by the Probation Service.

Martin Towers, prosecuting, told the court that in an impact statement, the victim’s niece, her closest living relative, said her aunt has needed help in recent years as it became obvious her memory was failing.

She said the family trusted people in her community to ensure she was managing and was safe.

But when she was told about the fraud she was, “absolutely horrified”.

The niece described it as, “a gross betrayal of trust”, and said her aunt no longer felt safe in the community where she enjoyed living for many years.

Since the crime was uncovered, she said her aunt has had a subsequent further decline, with the effects of Alzheimer’s taking hold.

Mr Towers said the victim was not said to be a wealthy woman and the amount taken represented a proportion of her savings.

“There was an abuse of trust in this case that took place for most of a year.

“It would seem there must have been an inference he deliberately targeted her due to her obvious vulnerability.”

Read more: Ferryhill fraudster targeted 'vulnerable' woman for cash

Brian Russell, in mitigation, said the court should be careful not to apportion blame for the victim’s decline entirely upon the defendant’s actions, as it was, “the natural consequence of her age.”

Mr Russell said although £6,000-plus was taken, “he did not completely clear out her savings.”

He said the defendant has no previous convictions.

“The reason for the offending, which I don’t suggest is any form of excuse, is because this man came to this country attempting to earn an honest living, by working hard, setting up a business.

“But that had not worked, as he found himself under the burden of snowballing debt, and that’s the reason he made the very foolish decision to defraud this lady.”

Mr Russell said the defendant has since shown remorse and an understanding of the impact of his offending.

He added: “It’s not an attempt to try to buy his freedom, but I’m clearly instructed that the money to compensate the victim is available.

“I appreciate there may be some scepticism about that, but despite his debt, he’s managed to set this money aside, available to be paid within the next 28 days.”

Judge Jo Kidd said the victim of this fraud had lived an independent life, was careful with her money, and, as a result of her hard work, had savings.

But the judge told Jeyapalan: “You took advantage of her vulnerability at a period of time in her life between August 2020 and April 2021.

“That coincided with the pandemic. It’s difficult to imagine how hard that was for her, being isolated during that period.

“It will have, no doubt, resulted in her having less contact with friends and family.

“She was obviously suffering from real issues with her memory.

“That will have been obvious to you. She visited your store up to three times a day.

“You took terrible advantage of her vulnerabilities over a significant period of time.

“Shops of your sort are at the heart of the community, a lifeline for people like her, particularly at a time like the pandemic.

The Northern Echo:
The Northern Echo:

“You were able to put yourself out there as a respectable business person.

“The community was entitled to believe you would behave honestly.

“You stole her financial information in order to use her bank account to pay your debts.

“You were able to do that due to her ill health, and, despite the obvious and continuing deterioration in her condition, you continued to steal from her.

“You said, in your pre-sentence report, that you were intending on paying that back.

“There’s no evidence to support that, whatsoever.

“It was a matter of good luck that your criminal activity was discovered, by which time you were already starting to clear out her life savings.”

Judge Kidd said she failed to understand why it was only on the day of him being sentenced that the defendant offered to refund the victim.

“That was an offer that could have been made at any time since June 2020.

“It is, in my view, a cynical offer.

“You continued to say, in interview, she had given you permission for you to use her bank account.

“You did not have the courage to enter your ‘guilty’ plea at the plea hearing.”

She said she was, therefore, limiting the credit for his late admission.

Read next:

             LOCKED UP: People facing justice in January and March

             Six people jailed in cases at Durham Crown Court this week

             Burglar traced to address in Murton by Air Tag device on stolen keys

If you want to read more great stories, why not subscribe to your Northern Echo for as little as £1.25 a week. Click here

Imposing a 20-month prison sentence, Judge Kidd added: “You were at the heart of the community in the provision of services and you persistently preyed on the most vulnerable member of that community.”

The judge told Jeyapalan he would serve up to ten months of that sentence in custody before being eligible for release under licence supervision.

She also ordered that the full £6,513 should be repaid by the defendant within the next 28 days.