South Shields fugitive lived bizarre double life pretending to be his own cousin

A fugitive who claimed almost £100,000 in benefits by living a bizarre double identity has been put behind bars.

Stephen Bellas started living as "alter-ego" Peter Foley, and even got married under that name, after he went on the run while wanted on a warrant for a house burglary in 2011.

Fraudster Stephen Bellas has been jailed at Newcastle Crown Court.

Fraudster Stephen Bellas has been jailed at Newcastle Crown Court.

Newcastle Crown court heard during his five years as a wanted man - and even after he was caught and given a suspended sentence for the burglary - the 50-year-old claimed benefits using the fake identity.

After his court appearance in 2016 for the house raid, when he was no longer on the run, Bellas made duplicate claims for housing benefit, employment support allowance and PIP, using his true identity.

Prosecutor Kevin Wardlaw told the court Bellas, of Mozart Street, South Shields, ran a Facebook page under his bogus identity in a bid to keep up the convincing con.

Mr Wardlaw said: "He set up a Facebook profile in the name of Peter Foley in order to defraud the authorities, but also others, into believing he was Peter Foley, including a lady he married."

The court heard the police and the DWP had launched a joint investigation into Bellas, and Foley, after the court appearance in 2016.

Bellas had claimed Foley was his illiterate cousin when questioned why he was carrying a bank card in that name when he was arrested.

Mr Wardlaw said: "There was evidence from Facebook that an image of Peter Foley showed a distinctive tattoo, which was on the hand of the defendant.

"There was further evidence Foley and Bellas were the same person, which was put to him. For example, they had the same telephone number, images and messages purporting to be both men and the distinctive tattoo.

"There was evidence from his, now ex, wife regarding the identity he used to her.

"However, he denied it and said his cousin would turn up and embarrass the investigators."

The court heard Bellas, who started the scam by getting a travel pass from Camden Council due to mobility issues then used it to set up a bank account in the fake name, claimed housing benefits he was not entitled to from both Camden and South Tyneside councils, as well as the unemployment and disability benefits.

Bellas, who appeared at the hearing via video link to HMP Durham, addressed the court himself before he was sentenced and said: "I just wanted to say, at the time when I made the claim as Peter, I didn't believe I was committing fraud.

"It was when I claimed in my real name, Stephen, when I knew I was committing fraud."

Judge Sarah Mallett sentenced Bellas, who admitted five offences of fraud, one of possessing an article used in connection with fraud and breach of the suspended sentence for burglary, to a total of three-and-a-half years behind bars.

The total benefit fraud amount was around £97,500.

The judge told him: "It was a fairly sophisticated course of conduct over an extended period of time. You had, in fact, created a whole alter-ego to go with what you was was a legitimate change of name to Peter Foley."

Geoff Knowles, defending, said Bellas has legitimate disabilities and is an isolated, single man.

Mr Knowles added: "They had the same telephone number, a series of matching tattoos, similar accounts, similar descriptions,. It does beg certain questions in terms of the exact degree of sophistication that was there."

Detective Constable Emma Martin, of Northumbria Police, said after sentencing: “Bellas repeatedly and knowingly manipulated the benefits system over a sustained period of time for his own selfish gain.

“Over a number of years, he received a significant amount of money unlawfully in benefits. He thought he was above the law and believed he would never be caught by police.

“Throughout this investigation, he has shown a complete disregard for the law and shown little sign of remorse. He only admitted his guilt at the eleventh hour under the mounting weight of evidence against him.

“However, his deceit has now been laid bare and he must live with the consequences of his dishonest actions.

“I hope his custodial sentence today out a clear message to anybody involved in fraudulent activity across Northumbria; you will be pursued, you will be caught and you will be brought to justice.”