Former Cheltenham pub landlady faces jail for stealing more than £70,000
By court reporter | 14th May 2020
The former landlady of a Cheltenham pub has been warned by a judge that she is facing jail after she admitted stealing more than £70,000 from members of its Christmas savings club.
Sally Johnstone, 54, of Beaumont rd, Springbank, Cheltenham, pleaded guilty at Gloucester crown court yesterday to two charges of theft from locals who invested in the Kings Arms Christmas Savings fund.
One charge stated that she stole £33,000 from the fund between 1st December 2017 and 30th December 2018 and the other that she stole £39,292 from the savers of the fund between 1st Dec 2018 and 3oth August 2019.
Johnstone, who appeared before the court via video link, also admitted a separate offence of fraud involving £30,000 between 1st Oct and 30th Dec 2018.
Judge Ian Lawrie QC said that because a pre-sentence report had been prepared on Johnstone by the probation service he could go ahead with sentencing her straightaway.
But Johnstone's solicitor asked for more time to gather evidence about Johnstone's medical condition and also about her family circumstances including the fact that she is currently caring for her elderly father, who is shielded at home because of the coronavirus.
Judge Lawrie agreed to bail her till 9th June but warned that because of the sums involved in the case he would be bound to consider a prison sentence above two years.
The judge said Johnstone's offences showed she had been 'blatantly dishonest over a long period of time.'
He queried what relevance her medical history would have to the sentence she receives.
Sarah Jenkins, defending, said "There have been a number of medical events in her life. She had a blockage in her aorta which resulted in surgery at the end of last year.
"More pressing though is the fact that she is at the present time the sole carer for her elderly father, who also lives in Cheltenham.
"Her two adult children live in different parts of the country. She has been looking after her father since he was shielded. No arrangements have yet been put in place for him because I had not anticipated that she might be sentenced today."
Judge Lawrie said his interpretation of sentencing guidelines was that "there is no choice but custody."
Mrs Jenkins agreed it would be difficult for her to argue that the offences deserved less than two years - the level at which a jail term can be suspended.
She pointed out that the £30,000 fraud charge that Johnstone admitted was money she had obtained to try to cover the loss from the Xmas savings fund at the pub.
"She took on this pub because she wanted it to stay open and she found herself completely out of her depth in terms of her ability to make money from the business," said Mrs Jenkins. "There is another side to the story."
The judge said the nature and duration of the offences showed that Johnstone had 'clearly put a lot of thought into it.'
He asked if it was correct that Johnstone had a gambling problem at the time. Mrs Jenkins said "It had become a problem and she sought assistance with it."
Judge Lawrie said he had read statements from victims of the theft from the savings club and they showed the impact her behaviour had on them.
"Someone you know and trust has stolen from you," he said. "This was a lot of money from a lot of people."
The probation officer told the court he was recommending that Johnstone is given a one year community order with twenty rehabilitation activity days and possibly unpaid work as punishment for her crimes.
"She has had a gambling addiction and she could do with some support for that," he said.
But the judge said "On the guidelines for this amount of money and the duration of the fraud she passes the custody threshold and she is in clear danger of receiving a custodial term in excess of two years. Custody is near inevitable."
Mr Hewitt said "Her father is 74 and totally relies on her for day to day support. He is unable to read and write and has significant health issues.
"She has supported him especially while this Covid-19 thing is going on. That is what concerns her the most.
"She lives about ten minutes away from him. She makes sure he is fed and things like that on a daily basis.
"She suffers from depression and anxiety and there was an attempted suicide three weeks ago."
Messages to Johnstone on her Facebook page last August when the theft allegations were first revealed include one calling her 'scum' and another saying 'you can run but you can't hide.'
Another Facebook user wrote "Is there even going to be a sorry? will you be buying anything for xmas for the people that shall not be getting anything as they have no money ?"
A month earlier, in July 2019, Johnstone posted on Facebook "Would just like to thank everybody who came to mikes fundraiser last nite the total was 1527.00." One reply to her message said "Did you steal that too?"
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