A garden services operator who left a customer more than £1,500 out of pocket for five years-plus is to finally pay the money back, while serving a three-year prison sentence.

Ambrose Fletcher went on to forge letters from a medical practice to excuse his attendance at subsequent court appearances after being charged with theft of the money, delaying proceedings against him.

He has finally been brought to justice five-and-a-half years since the original offence.

Durham Crown Court heard he took, in total, £1,582, from a 59-year-old woman who wanted her garden re-surfaced with artificial turf, in late July, or early August, in 2018.

The court was told he had previously performed satisfactory work cutting conifers for the same customer.

The Northern Echo: Gardening services operator Ambrose Fletcher jailed at Durham Crown Court for theft of money paid

He claimed he needed the payment ‘up front’ as a deposit for the artificial turfing work, in part to meet the cost of equipment and materials for the job.

The court was told she paid the money in three instalments, but in due course no work was performed.

Philip Morley, prosecuting, said the victim contacted Fletcher and asked him to pay the money back, which he pledged to do, but no money has been repaid to this point.

When spoken to by investigators, in November 2019, he confirmed he was the “front man” of the company and did not have anything to do with the customers and pricing jobs, as, “the lads” (his workforce) would do that.

He claimed he never met the victim or visited her address and, again, “the lads” would have done the work.

Fletcher did confirm, however, that the customer had paid money into his account, but, once more, denied having had any contact with her.

Mr Morley said Fletcher was summoned to appear before magistrates on five occasions between July 2021 and June 2022, but each time sent letters back purporting to be from his medical practice, in Bishop Auckland, claiming he was too ill to attend court.

A doctor working at the medical centre, who was contacted and examined the letters, confirmed they were not sent from the practice.

Trading standards officers twice tried to contact Fletcher about the forged letters, but on the second occasion he said he was not prepared to speak about them as he said his life was in danger, and he claimed he wanted to speak to “the authorities”, in person, for his protection.

There was then no further contact with him and he failed to attend court appearances at both Durham and Newcastle crown courts, in August 2022 and March 2023, respectively.

Bench warrants were issued for his arrest, and they were finally executed late last October, when he was brought before Durham Crown Court, where he admitted theft and possessing criminal property, both relating to the £1,582 payment, from 2018

He was remanded in custody in Durham Prison, where he has remained since, making a further court appearance on January 30, when he admitted perverting the course of justice over the forged medical letters.

Fletcher has subsequently admitted failing to surrender to bail, relating to the crown court appearances at both Durham and Newcastle, in August 2022 and March 2023.

The 32-year-old defendant, of Laburnum Grove, St Helen Auckland, appeared back at Durham Crown Court, via video link from the nearby prison, for today’s (Friday February 23) sentencing hearing.

A statement was read from Fletcher’s original customer who said she has lost confidence in seeking help from trades people as a result of her experience with the defendant and she added that he should be “ashamed” the matter has dragged on so long.

The court heard Fletcher has seven convictions for 14 offences, 11 of them for fraud or similar matters.

The Northern Echo:

Glenn Gatland, for the defendant, presented the court with four references on his behalf, some of which referred to his own health difficulties and those of his wife, for whom he has been, until his arrest, a principal carer.

Mr Gatland said the defendant did the first job, cutting conifers, for the customer, to a satisfactory standard, so much so that she was confident to go back to him to ask him to install the artificial turf.

But, shortly after that, he had to serve a short period in custody, meaning he was unable to carry out the work when he had planned to do so.

Mr Gatland said the defendant’s wife has confirmed in a statement that she has the £1,582 in an account and would be able to make a repayment within 28 days o behalf of the defendant.

Relating to the offences of perverting the course of justice, Mr Gatland said the defendant has always maintained, that “outside influences” became involved, over which Fletcher has reported matters to the police, but no action has yet been taken.

Mr Gatland added: “Plainly, I have to accept it was a delay of some length, but it’s not a case where he has gone to Dubai to avoid the court process for four or five years.”

While in prison, on remand, Mr Gatland said that the defendant has been given a judgement of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a legacy of a previous incident where he was attacked, and for which he is now on medication.

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Passing sentence, Recorder Mark McKone said the original theft case was something which should have been capable of being resolved in court over a matter of a few weeks, but instead, through the defendant’s actions, proceedings have been delayed and dragged out unnecessarily.

Recorder McKone said the defendant’s medical claims, were “lies” and were “blatant”, undermining both the integrity of the criminal justice system and the medical profession.

Imposing the three-year prison sentence, Recorder McKone made a compensation order for the full £1,582 to be repaid to the victim within 28 days.