VETERANS have condemned a “despicable” thief who stole thousands of pounds of donations intended for servicemen wounded in the line of duty.
Thomas Richards, of Lowell Place, Witney, has been jailed for 12 months after he was caught collecting £2,000 in Oxford meant for Help for Heroes and keeping it for himself.
The 27-year-old, whose actions were branded “unforgivable” by a Help for Heroes spokes-man, spent the cash on booze, betting shops and nights in the Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel.
At Oxford Crown Court yesterday it was revealed Richards has 45 previous convictions for 83 offences, prompting Judge Mary Jane Mowat to say he should not have been allowed to collect for the charity.
She told him: “The truth of the matter is that you have been a life-long offender – somebody who should never have been let loose with a collection tin.”
The judge described the Help for Heroes vetting process, which does not require a CRB check, as “ramshackle” but said she understood with up to 400 people signing up every week proper vetting was not possible.
In January 2011 Richards registered to became a street collector with the charity and over the next two months he spent most of the money he collected on himself.
He raised money for a charity bike ride from Cape Wrath in Scotland to Land’s End, which was described by Judge Mowat as “fanciful”, and shelled out more than £1,000 for a new bike and cycle accessories.
Richards even told a member of the public he was on compassionate leave from the Army after serving in “the Far East”, which was a lie.
He was caught out when Pc Steven Higa saw him collecting in Cornmarket Street, Oxford, and became suspicious because he knew his record, the court heard.
Pc Higa said: “The vast majority of the collectors are trustworthy and pass the money on, it is just a very small minority who take advantage of the goodwill and generosity of the public.”
Richard Lister, defending, said Richards was not “somebody who thinks through the consequences of his actions” and was now disgusted with what he had done.
Speaking after the hearing, Oxfordshire Royal British Legion chairman Jim Lewendon said: “Making money out of other people’s misery is despicable. It’s an insult to our heroes.
“Help for Heroes mostly helps youngsters and their families who are suffering and this low life has tried to make money out of that.”
He added: “I do not think a year in prison is deterrent enough.”
Corporal Tom Neathway, who lost both legs and an arm in a Taliban bomb blast, said: “It is totally disrespectful. Help for Heroes was set up to help wounded soldiers. He has not shown respect for us, fighting for our country.”
Help for Heroes spokesman David Fraser added: “It is unforgivable that someone might attempt to gain personally from donations given generously by the public to support the wounded.
“Anyone authorised by Help for Heroes to do a street collection must carry their fundraising certificate and each collection is followed up by our dedicated team.
“Our rigorous processes ensure that if someone attempts to defraud that charity, we catch them, report them to the police and push for prosecution. This one incident undermines the thousands of generous and committed fundraisers across the UK.”
HELP FOR HEROES
Help for Heroes was launched in 2007 to raise money for British servicemen and women wounded in the line of duty.
It tries to pay for better facilities and support services to help those injured and their families, as well as supporting other charities.
Collectors have to register with Help for Heroes, providing personal details and the time and location they will be fundraising for the charity. They then receive official paperwork and a sealed collection tin.
If the money received by Help for Heroes is less than expected given the time and location or the collection tin is broken, the charity will investigate.
Although Help for Heroes would not discuss specific details of investigations, the charity has in house fraud investigators and pro bono lawyers tackling the problem. Charities do not obtain CRB checks of collectors due to the cost.