SHE was treated like a princess on her birthday - then ruthlessly wiped off the face of the earth in the most callous way. Neil Hunter reports.
HAPPY Cherelle Hart was treated to lunch at her favourite restaurant and showered with gifts by her uncle and his fiancée.
Yet within hours, the couple were at a solicitors' office with a forged will - claiming Miss Hart did not even exist.
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They signed probate forms saying Hart was the only surviving relative of his deceased factory worker father Ronald.
The fraud - witnessed by Miss Hart's partner - cut her out of the will and left Hart to pocket more than £43,000.
From that day - September 22, 2011 - the disgraced police officer seemingly refused to speak to his baffled niece.
At the time, she could not understand why she was suddenly being cut off - but now realises it may have been because of his guilt.
"He just refused to answer his phone when I rang and wouldn't respond to texts," says Miss Hart, who lives in Darlington.
"When he finally did have the guts to reply, he accused me of only being interested in money - how ironic that is.
"This has never been about money. If my grandad had left a will and left everything to Darren, that would be fine.
"It's always been about what's right and what's wrong. What Darren did was so wrong. It's unforgivable, really."
Darren Hart outside Teesside Crown Court
On her birthday, Miss Hart was taken to the Blue Lagoon in Darlington by Hart and Alison Hope - now his second wife.
"Alison arranged it all," she recalls. "She came in with my little boy Warren with a present and large bouquet.
"She had a card and a birthday balloon, and a present from Warren - a pair of slippers from River Island.
"After we ate, we went to their house and they had some more presents - a Pandora bracelet and another card containing money.
"The bracelet was a bit too big, and Alison said 'no problem, get in the car' and we went to the jewellers to get a smaller size.
"They bought me plaques with the words 'angels sleeping above sprinkle us with seeds of love' and 'when it's raining, look for rainbows . . . when it's dark, look for stars'.
"She got me a surprise birthday cake with candles. It was such a lovely day. A couple of days later, they completely stopped speaking to me."
Miss Hart continues: "Family is the most important thing in my life - far more important than money.
"I'm heartbroken with the lies Darren seems to have told my nana. I don't believe she knows the extent of it all.
"This has been hanging over for far too long. I just want to start afresh with my partner and children."
Retired detective Jim Cunningham, who investigated the case, said: "When somebody makes a last will and testament, they expect their wishes to be fulfilled.
"Obviously, in this case, people have taken it upon themselves not to follow the correct procedure, and have got this will signed after the person has died.
"That calls into question the whole credibility of the probate system, because people are relied upon to tell the truth when they swear affidavits."
Miss Hart says: "At the time, I thought what they did on my birthday was lovely. I felt very special.
"The same day they signed the probate forms to say I was non-existent."
Hart claimed in his court papers that he did not know his niece would have been entitled to half of his father's estate.
Before the sentencing hearing, he brazenly claimed he was the victim of the con.
He said: "My niece is not the victim of this. If anything it's the state and me who are victims.
"I was going through a terrible divorce and was stressed by my job as a police officer. I was at my lowest when this happened and was suffering from depression.
"I have an exemplary service record in the army and as a police officer, I've looked after my child who has Down's syndrome and I don't believe I'm a bad person.
"I think I will get a suspended sentence and will be able to continue working."