Mum who conned families in South Shields Day Trips Facebook scam is spared jail
A mum who pocketed cash paid by low-income families for "once in a lifetime" Disney holidays and spent it on treats and trips for herself has walked free from court.
Ashleigh Turbitt convinced hard-up customers they could have dream coach holidays to Euro Disney in Paris, through her firm South Shields Day Trips.
She falsely claimed the company was fully insured and subsidised through government grants for those on a limited income.
Newcastle Crown Court heard that delighted children's mounting excitement was sparked by "golden tickets" packed in glitter-filled envelopes, which parents were given when they booked.
Their happiness was fuelled by pictures and videos Turbitt posted on her South Shields Day Trips Facebook page, with promises of the adventures they would have at the Disney park, as they counted down the days to their holiday.
But some families did not find out that their dream trips did not exist until the day before they were due to set off, when their suitcases were packed and children were waiting to go.
The court heard Turbitt had not booked any of the coach or ferry travel, hotels or park tickets she had been paid for.
Instead, she had used the cash for spa trips, Sky TV, online gambling, spending sprees on clothes and electronics, and paying off rent arrears and debts.
Cruelly, she even visited Euro Disney with her own family.
In the space of one month Turbitt blew £14,500 of her victims' cash, while in another month she spent £8,000.
The court heard when her scam began to be uncovered, Turbitt invented a man called David Pullen, who she said had failed to make the bookings on her behalf, she blamed a lover for running off with cash, before eventually admitting she had conned people.
A total of 151 families paid for dream Disney trips but were left out of pocket and with nowhere to go.
As a result of her arrest, a further 217 families missed out on day trips and overnight stays to destinations such as Edinburgh Zoo and Harry Potter World, which they already paid for.
One victim told police in a statement: "As far as my children were concerned, they were just a few short hours away from the holiday of a lifetime.
"Their clothes were packed and the cases were at the front door. I had to explain to them that a wicked woman had lied to me.
"I have no idea how she can live withe the pain she caused to hard-working families."
Another victim said she was outraged when she saw Turbitt had been "liking" press reports posted on Facebook about her case.
One woman had booked for a party of 18 friends and family to take a trip together, and told police she felt like her "heart had been ripped out" when she realised they had all been conned.
Turbitt, of Belloc Avenue, South Shields, admitted fraud by representation between February and July 2015.
She admitted pocketing £46,000 through the cruel scam, and has been ordered to pay back the £14,513 police seized from her bank accounts or face going to jail for nine months.
Recorder Keith Miller told the mum-of-three she had been "carried away by greed and avarice".
He said: "You know what it is like from experience of having young children and how excited they can get and, conversely, how disappointed they can be when they feel let down.
"The reality in this case is that your deceit, exercised over a period of about five months, has had a traumatic effect on many families."
The judge said Turbitt caused "misery" to families who must have been devastated when they realised they had been duped.
But the judge said Turbitt's two-year jail term could be suspended, for two years because of her family circumstances, which include the fact she has a young baby.
He told Turbitt: "The effect on a nine-month-old child being deprived of the presence of her mother, would or could be devastating."
Turbitt was ordered to carry out 240 hours' unpaid work and abide by a nine-month curfew, from 7pm to 7am.
Prosecutor Paul Cleasby told the court Turbitt set up her firm on Facebook in January 2014 and initially ran trips to the UK, which proved a huge success in the community.
Mr Cleasby said: "The idea behind the company was to offer trips to low-income families who would or could not otherwise afford day trips and holidays.
"Discounts were offered if customers could pay for trips immediately. This meant low-income families parted with money they had borrowed or struggled to save.
"In some cases it was money bequeathed to them from relatives who had died."
The court heard the iniital trips to Flamingo Land, Lightwater Valley and Edinburgh Zoo proved a success and Turbitt, who wrongly stated she was ATOL and ABTA-protected, started to offer breaks further afield as South Shields Day Trips built up trust in the community.
The Euro Disney break was due to depart at Easter 2015, with a family of three offered two nights away for £329, including all costs.
Mr Cleasby added: "The price made them affordable to low-income families, who had not had holidays for years, were on benefits and who saved for a long time so they could take the trip of a lifetime."
The court heard in the weeks before the Easter trip, Turbitt contacted customers, claiming the coach company had gone bust.
The trip was cancelled and she offered refunds, or the chance to re-book in the summer or at New Year, with an extra night thrown in for the inconvenience.
Mr Cleasby said many families took the chance of the later offer, but as the new summer date approached Turbitt used a series of excuses, including the terror attacks in France, to explain why the trip might have to be cancelled.
In some cases it was just a day before the coaches were due to set off that families found out that their holidays had never actually been booked.
Graeme Cook, defending, said Turbitt had been carrying twins but lost one of her babies after a difficult pregnancy in the year of her offending and has since been diagnosed with a life-long health condition.
Mr Cook said the business was started with good intentions and added: "The trips were going to happen when she started out arranging them."