A BUSINESSMAN has told how a trusted family friend left his firm facing financial difficulties by stealing more than £10,000 to fund his online gambling habit.

William Richardson repeatedly pilfered money from the accounts of Darlington company Watson’s Removals, where he was office manager.

His parents were friends with boss Mick Watson and he was given a job while at university – and progressed through the ranks of the firm.

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Over nine months last year, the 27-year-old transferred company money into his own account for use on internet betting sites, a court was told.

Richardson was spared prison after a judge heard he was of “impeccable” previous character and had sought help for his gambling addiction.

In a statement, Mr Watson said he “treated him like a son”

and felt badly betrayed – and revealed he was even going to leave half of his company to him.

“I grew to care for him and love him,” said Mr Watson.

“I trusted him implicitly, leaving him in full control of the office.

“The impact of the crime has taken its toll, not just financially, but emotionally and physically.”

Richardson, of Burdon Close, Newton Aycliffe, in County Durham, admitted two charges of fraud and was given a six-month suspended jail sentence.

Judge George Moorhouse, sitting at Teesside Crown Court, also ordered the father-of-two to pay £2,000 compensation and carry out 200 hours of community work.

The judge told him: “This was a clear breach of trust. Your employer treated you as his own son.”

Dan Cordey, mitigating, said Richardson was ashamed that he had brought disgrace to his “decent” family.

“It didn’t appear to be real money in the sense he was never handing over notes,” he said.

“The gambling was online and the money was online as well.

“He could gamble, essentially, from his desk, from his computer.

He didn’t keep a track of what he was taking.”

Jenny Haigh, prosecuting, said that a total of £10,662 was taken from the accounts between January and September last year.

“He was given an opportunity to pay the money back, but none has been forthcoming,” she said.

The fraud was detected when former soldier Mr Watson heard stories of Richardson spending a lot of money, and closely inspected the finances.

Mr Cordey said: “The very fact of losing his job, losing his good character and having to come to court in public, and the stigma of a conviction, are fitting punishments.”