A MOTOR club was driven to the brink of bankruptcy by a thieving official whose dishonesty led to rows, rifts and resignations.

Elizabeth Russell plundered £58,500 from the funds of Richmond Motor Club and a further £8,350 from a local church council to fund a gambling addiction.

The 68-year-old was a treasurer for both organisations despite having convictions for false accounting and obtaining services by deception.

Teesside Crown Court heard how during the two years she took the money, the grey-haired grandmother spent more than £160,000 on internet gambling sites.

The case prompted a judge to call for tighter restrictions on the industry, and told Russell: "In my view, they are equally as culpable as you."

The motor club – which holds some of the biggest motorcycle trials in the world, including the annual Scott Trial – appointed Russell as treasurer in mid-2014, and she was trusted to look after its finances and banking.

Prosecutor Paul Newcombe said her crimes came to light when the accountants were examined in October 2016, and they shows discrepancies for the previous two years.

Russell was invited to a meeting to explain the huge financial black-hole, but refused – although she did admit stealing, apologised, confessed about her habit, and said she would try to pay back the money

As police investigated the fraud and thefts, they discovered she was also the secretary of the Snape and Well Parochial Church Council, and an examination of its books showed £8,350 had been pocketed by Russell.

In an impact statement from motor club, Nathan Stones said the organisation had always made a profit until Russell's crimes.

He said: "The theft of the money had serious consequences that almost bankrupted the club.

"The investigation has tarnished the good reputation of the Richmond Motor Club. She has caused great upset to club members past and present, who have been involved for more than 40 years."

The statement said the theft caused "verbal confrontations" between members and the committee, and resulted in officials quitting their posts and members leaving.

Mr Stones said members were "pointing the finger at the committee" for not spotting the fraud, and it will take a long time for trust to return.

An impact statement from the churches said: "Members of the small congregations and others associated with the two churches have donated money and worked hard to raise funds.

"Most of the people know Elizabeth Russell personally so there is a feeling there has been a breach of trust and an emotional impact."

Judge Sean Morris said: "Online gambling is a scourge.

"Whilst the directors make millions and drive away in their flash cars, the courts are left picking up the pieces.

"It is just a shame that those who are in power are not more vigilant about a prevalence of those problems and the causes of those problems."

Russell, of The Lodge, Snape, Bedale, near Richmond, admitted one charge of fraud and two of theft, and was given a 14-month prison sentence, suspended for two years.

Judge Morris also ordered her to do 25 days of a rehabilitation activity requirement to deal with her addiction, and carry out 200 hours of unpaid work.

He told sobbing Russell: "You became so addicted that you were blinded to any morality, and stole and swindled, but you admitted it.

"You come from a small Yorkshire village where everybody knows everybody, and I have read testimonials of the good you do for others and always have."

Denise Breen-Lawton, mitigating, said Russell had paid back almost £5,000 to the church council, and provided Judge Morris with references from her new employer and others.

"The cause of all of this is a gambling addiction," said Miss Breen-Lawton. "It is far too easy online to gamble, and she has fallen into the trap of that.

"It is a very small community she comes from and she has been utterly shamed in that community. Everybody knows about it. Everybody knows each other's business, but despite that she has glowing testimonials from people who know she has done wrong, but still stand by her."