A former Australian TV presenter who fabricated a “cruel lie” around a dying child to con Trade Me buyers out of $35,000 has been sentenced to jail.
Simone Anne Wright, who also used the last names Williams and Smith, lied about having a terminally ill son being cared for at Auckland’s Starship hospital to sell motorbikes, a spa bath and other items worth thousands of dollars on Trade Me.
She denied the charges, saying she had nothing to do with the fake trades and blaming her former husband Paul James Bennett.
Wright claimed Bennett controlled everything about the offending, but after a judge-alone trial in the Christchurch District Court she was found guilty on all seven charges of obtaining by deception.
Last month Bennett was jailed for more than three years after admitting his role in the offending.
Wright was sentenced this afternoon by Judge Paul Kellar, who presided over her trial.
One of Wright’s victims was in court to see her sentence handed down.
The court heard about the impact the offending had – including financial and emotional tolls for “hardworking people”.
“The cruel lie that was a central part of this fraud … about the sick son … really was used to engender these victim’s trust and sympathy,” said Crown prosecutor Penny Brown.
She sought a prison term of at least 18 months for Wright, saying the offending was “significant”.
Defence lawyer Elizabeth Bulger agreed with the Crown about the starting point.
She said the court should not ignore Bennett in his ex’s sentencing this afternoon, because he was the “mastermind of this total fraud”.
“Ms Wright does not accept your verdict but she accepts she has to be sentenced on your findings,” Bulger told the court.
She said no offer or reparation could be made to the victims.
Judge Kellar said the maximum sentence for each charge she was convicted of was seven years in jail.
“I found the charges proved,” he reminded her.
He said an aggravating factor was the number of victims involved and how much they paid Wright and Bennett.
“The second and very significant factor is the harm to the victims … in the one case at the time of the offending the victims were on one wage as the youngest of their two sons had disabilities.
“They saved very hard to purchase the motorbike for the older son and it came as an absolutes shock when it never arrived and they realised they had been conned.
“One of the other victims sought to purchase a spa with money that had been left to her from her mother’s recent death … the money meant a lot to her and the fraud on them has had a profound effect.
“As usually happens in this situation they’ve become distrustful … other victims are in the same position.”
Judge Kellar said the offending was “brazen, callous and cynical”.
“It’s fair to say it wasn’t overly sophisticated,” he said.
“The motivation for the offending seems to be nothing more than greed.”
He set a starting point of one year and eight months in jail but gave Wright credit for the fact that she had no previous convictions in New Zealand or Australia.
Letters of support were written for Wright, and she also penned one to the judge.
“I think it’s obvious that until you met Mr Bennett you had a good life,” he said.
“Mr Bennett created an environment in which this offending occurred.”
Judge Kellar agreed Bennett was the mastermind and sentenced Wright to a total of one year and five months with six months of post-release conditions and further special conditions.
He did not order Wright to pay reparation as it was not a realistic possibility.
Fibs and fantasies – a tale of two fraudsters
Both Wright and Bennett were arrested as the pair sailed into Sydney Harbour after crossing the Tasman Sea from Northland on a crippled yacht in February 2015.
Wright was extradited from Australia to New Zealand in November 2018.
At trial Wright claimed that Bennett– who she married in Sydney in 2002 – used to tell “spectacular” stories, once claiming he’d once been kidnapped at gunpoint in Hollywood star Russell Crowe’s helicopter by an Australian criminal organisation.
One “big story” was how he had lived in South Africa and worked for the CIA as a helicopter pilot and that he’d been “a witness to all sorts of things”.
“He even bought a nuclear weapon into the story,” she said, along with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s son Sir Mark.
When they met, Bennett allegedly told her to sell her house and car, and that she didn’t need to work anymore.
“Eventually everything was gone. Right down to a small suitcase of clothes,” she said.
“I lost everything … He lied to me our whole relationship. He’s an expert liar.”
They snuck into New Zealand in 2005, sailing across the Tasman Sea from Australia on a yacht and avoiding immigration officials.
Wright claimed they did so because Bennett “feared for his life” and was running from the organised crime syndicate.
The court heard that in May 2008 they were living in Napier when Wright set up two Trade Me accounts and two bank accounts.
On May 27, 2008, a used plug-in spa was listed for sale with its listing saying it was needed to “help pay family medical bills”.
A Dunedin woman won the auction and paid $4065 for the spa.
In an exchange of emails around getting the spa delivered, the seller said they were at Starship hospital with a son on life support. The buyer offered her best wishes but the spa was never received – and she never heard from the seller again.
Another exchange involved a silage wagon and Suzuki quad bike sold for $16,500. When the items didn’t arrive, the buyer phoned and spoke with a male who said they were at Starship with a nephew who had brain cancer.
A Kawasaki motorbike was sold three times, with stories around a sick son.
One witness told how after buying the bike for $2650 he had a phone conversation with a woman called “Susan” and sympathised with her tale of a sick son with a brain tumour.
“As a father with a son the same age you get sucked along. It was a good game,” the witness said.
They soon had concerns of a con and when they tried phoning back, got no answer.
They never got their money back.
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