Australia — A man who fleeced a vulnerable Black Saturday bushfire survivor and her four children of almost $400,000 in assistance payments she had “put away for the kids” has been jailed.
Judge Michael Bourke described David Robert Lancaster’s “sickening” exploitation of the mother of four as “cruel and dreadful”.
The devastated woman told Melbourne’s County Court her children had “lost so much” in the fires in Kinglake and it had been “hard to replace our belongings and explain to the children why they can’t have the things they once had” since her money disappeared.
“It’s been hard to come to terms that someone can take away so much,” she wrote of Lancaster’s conduct in her victim impact statement, “[that] someone can be heartless and cruel.”
The money came from insurance and government compensation after the fires on February 7, 2009, destroyed her home, cars and other possessions and assets.
Lancaster, 41, who has a long criminal history that includes many dishonesty offences, lost most of the $398,900 he had scammed gambling at Crown casino including $284,000 punted in two weeks.
Judge Bourke heard that Lancaster’s victim, whom Fairfax Media has chosen not to identify, had serious mental health issues, post traumatic stress disorder and that she and Lancaster had bipolar disorder.
Lancaster, 41, a painter, of Dennington, near Warrnambool, pleaded guilty to five charges of theft and two of obtaining property by deception.
In his sentencing remarks, Judge Bourke described Lancaster’s conduct as a “cruel and dreadful exploitation of a vulnerable woman’s trust” that to many “would be an almost sickening account of that”.
Judge Bourke said she had been left humiliated and bereft and that most of her money was “lost and now belongs to the proprietors of Crown casino”.
He questioned, without criticism or direct knowledge, what processes existed to prevent criminally acquired money being gambled and lost at the casino, but reflected how “quickly and apparently easily it can be done”.
Judge Bourke also noted that neither Lancaster’s sentence or an order against him to pay her compensation of $398,900 would likely help her.
But he remarked: “There is no legal or, indeed, moral obligation, but these monies, or a great deal of them, ended up in the Crown casino. In my humble and respectful opinion, it would be credible indeed if something was done for [her] … it may already have been done. I do not know.”
Lancaster was jailed for five years and was ordered to serve a minimum of two and half years.
Prosecutor Danny Holding had told the court the woman, then 30, and Lancaster met and became friends at a temporary village in Kinglake in November, 2009, where he offered to rebuild a house cheaper than she had been quoted.
Mr Holding said she first gave Lancaster a $50,000 bank cheque to help start a business, but he repaid only $2000 of an arrangement that never eventuated.
Soon after, when the woman became unwell with mental health issues, she was concerned about spending her money before the house was built, so she asked Lancaster to help by putting it in a joint account. She drew a bank cheque for $284,000, went to a bank in Whittlesea with him where she believed the money would go into an account that needed joint signatures for a withdrawal.
Mr Holding said she “didn’t want the money touched”, but unknown to her it was set up to allow Lancaster electronic access.
Between December 4 and 17 he withdrew the $284,000, and on January 4, 2010, drew a cheque for $190, which left the account $3.91 in debit.
She was hospitalised soon after, voluntarily and then involuntarily. Lancaster visited her and induced her with false statements to transfer $65,000 into the account. Mr Holding said she stated she was heavily medicated and “couldn’t think through” everything Lancaster told her but had completed the paperwork.
Mr Holding said the victim had since reformed a relationship with her former husband and had been helped by the Kinglake community.
Defence barrister Matthew Phillips, who tendered a number of medical reports on his client, said Lancaster was admitted to a psychiatric unit in January, 2010, where he remained until the following April.
Mr Phillips submitted that Lancaster was unwell at the time of the offences and shortly after them, which had contributed to the offending and was relevant to his sentence.
“He’s horrified with himself that he was able to do that to someone,” Mr Phillips said of Lancaster, whose rented house, car and dog were destroyed in the fires but “it is not said he lost all his worldly possessions”.
Judge Bourke found that Lancaster’s mental illness had “some impact” on his behaviour and that consideration of his moral culpability was to some extent affected. But there was, he added, a limit to that and told Lancaster: “It can’t be said that when offending you did not realise the significant harm and wrong of what you were doing.”
Judge Bourke, who said the psychiatrists noted that Lancaster’s mental state had settled, took into account his guilty pleas, co-operation, personal history, mental heath problems and prospects for rehabilitation.