A care manager who plundered £71,000 from her trusting and vulnerable clients has been jailed.
Zoe Coates, 41, sobbed in the dock at Preston Crown Court as Judge Simon Newell sentenced her to 30 months.
This is a tragic case on so many different levels. Nothing I say should be confused with seeking to excuse her actions
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, 53-year-old Mr Woods, 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 Coates 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.
“The defendant had admitted to Sophie Woods 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.”
She has sold her home and the proceeds seized by 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.
“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.”
The heartbroken mum of Kerry Lee-Woods spoke of an “ultimate betrayal”.
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, lived in accommodation in Bamber Bridge under the care of Coates, who admitted six counts of stealing from clients.
Kerry’s mum 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 five months before Kerry’s wedding.
The great grandmother, 71, of Mounsey Road, Bamber Bridge, said: “Zoe was involved with Kerry and John from the beginning which is why we feel so incredibly betrayed. She was welcomed into our home and was like one of the family.
“She advised us about the wedding, because I was grieving for my husband.”
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.
“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 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 keep having flashbacks about it.”
Her mum Kay Green, of Smiths Croft, Leyland, said it came to light when they had a £3,00 bill for Sophie’s care that was unpaid, and found her account was overdrawn.
Jackie Tait, divisional director at Hft, said: “We deeply regret the impact caused by this theft on the people directly affected. We have been working closely with police to ensure these people have not suffered any financial loss.”