Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Married Con Man Uses PlentyofFish for Affair

By Patricia Kane

(U.K.) As Victoria Fraenzel logged on to the internet dating site for the first time, she was uncertain what response she would receive to her request for a man who would offer her ‘truth and honesty’. Yet within hours of keying her details into the popular website Plenty Of Fish, the 35-year-old was not disappointed with the response.

Darren Upton, a wealthy accountant in his late 30s, quickly got in touch and within days had charmed his way into her life and, soon after, her bed. They had an 18-month affair as he lavished expensive gifts on her, including a £3,000 Cartier watch, designer dresses by film-star favourite Amanda Wakeley and a Mercedes sports car.

Last week, however, Upton was finally exposed as a conman and jailed for six years for stealing hundreds of thousands of pounds from his clients so he could live a life of luxury.

Today Victoria tells how she foolishly fell for Upton’s lies, of the lifestyle they both enjoyed during their fling and her feelings of betrayal at discovering he was not single, as he had claimed, but married. His wife even had a daughter by him during their affair.

Victoria also reveals her shock at the extent of his fraud and of her anger at being labelled ‘greedy’ as the main beneficiary of his embezzled funds. She said: ‘I’ve been made out to be a terrible hussy who had thousands of pounds lavished on her by a married man. But I am not that sort of person. I’m not grasping or greedy. I didn’t ask him for anything. I just wanted to be with him. It was never about the money or the sex.’

Close to tears, she added: ‘After a series of bad relationships, I just wanted someone who wanted to give me a hug and love me. Darren appeared to be that man. I had finally found someone who seemed to genuinely care about me and made me feel special. He was kind and caring. That’s all I wanted – but it was all a lie.’

In total, the accountant cheated 33 clients by not passing to the taxman £500,000 they had paid him. On Thursday, at Leeds Crown Court, he admitted 15 fraud offences between January 2010 and June last year. He also asked for 23 similar offences to be taken into consideration.

Passing sentence, Judge Sally Cahill QC said the crimes were committed for ‘pure selfish greed’. She told him: ‘You were thoroughly dishonest and motivated by greed. This was a gross breach of trust, it was planned from the offset and fraudulent from the offset. I consider this to be professional offending at a high level.’

For Victoria, now 36, the last eight months since discovering the truth have been filled with remorse and self-reproach at being duped so easily. She thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with Upton, with plans to ‘retire’ to the Bahamas in October, where he claimed to have a beachside property.

‘He told me we would get married and we would be happy there together,’ said Victoria. ‘I had no idea he already had a wife and a daughter who had been born during our relationship. I was shocked beyond words when I finally discovered the truth. I’m still struggling to take in the extent of his lies. Nothing in his behaviour ever made me suspicious. I feel very stupid now but I believed everything he said.’

This was not Victoria’s first ‘bad experience’ with men. One of her former partners was Bryan Garvey – who had shared an £18.5 million National Lottery jackpot with four other winners before she met him. ‘My relationship with Bryan ended acrimoniously and it took nearly four years before I thought of looking for someone else,’ she said.

‘Once bitten, twice shy, so it was a really big decision for me to start dating again, and I thought an internet site might help me find someone more compatible. It was my first time on the site and on my posting, I remember saying I was looking for “truth, honesty… a real person”.

‘I cringe now looking back because hindsight is a wonderful thing. Darren got in touch within hours and after a couple of days of online chat, we agreed to meet in a pub in Preston. I remember him sending me a photograph at one point and I saw a wedding ring on his finger. When I said, “That looks like you’re married,” he replied that he’d been engaged but it was now over.’

Meeting him for the first time, however, was a shock for 6ft Victoria – who was a model in her teenage years. She explained: ‘I’m not unattractive and I’m used to dating good-looking men, so it was a bit of a shock to meet Darren in the flesh. My first impression was that he was ugly but his banter and charm made me see him in a different light and in the end I agreed to meet him again.’

They met a few days later, again in Preston, and this time, keen to impress, he picked her up in his Bentley with personalised number plates DJU. The court would hear that Upton had also already bought his wife, Tina, a Maserati. He had also splashed out on a £10,000 box at Leeds United Football Club and even spent £3,000 on a model railway.

Within a few dates, Upton would whisk Victoria off to his £500,000 penthouse flat in an upmarket area of Leeds, overlooking the River Aire and the city skyline. Exquisitely decorated with white leather sofas and state-of-the-art home-entertainment equipment, including a large plasma TV, Upton told her he lived there alone.

As the relationship became more intimate, Upton’s gifts became more lavish. He bought her a Cartier watch, as well as diamond earrings, and several thousands of pounds worth of designer clothes and accessories from Harvey Nichols, including a number of Mulberry handbags. In one shopping spree alone, he blew more than £2,000 on two dresses by Amanda Wakeley – a favourite of Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson and Kate Winslet.

From October 2010, he also began paying £800-a-month rent on another apartment in Salford, Greater Manchester, where Victoria would sometimes stay with him when she was not at her own home in nearby Altrincham. He gave her a bank card with a £500 limit to buy anything for the flat.

The couple ate at the best restaurants in Manchester, such as San Carlo and Rosso, favourites of Premier League footballers. They had been dating for about six months when a smitten Upton bought Victoria a black Mercedes sports car.

She said: ‘He had been talking about it for some time. I was gobsmacked at his generosity but if he said he would get me something, he always did. He had the car delivered to my home. I just jumped into the car in excitement and went for a drive. Now I know he was a conman but at that time I loved him more than ever.’ For Victoria it was not an entirely new lifestyle, having grown up with indulgent, wealthy parents on a sprawling farm near Blackburn.

At an early age, she had learned to ride horses and was a competitive showjumper before turning her back on the sport in her teens. When her father committed suicide eight years ago, he left Victoria independently wealthy and with no need to rely on Upton’s generosity. She said: ‘It really angers me that people might think I was desperate for him to spend all this money on me and that I was in the relationship to gain financially. I didn’t need him to buy me any of those things. It was nice, of course, and he wanted to do it. But if I’d known it was all paid for with stolen money, I would never have touched him or his gifts.’

As her relationship with Upton deepened, he began to be more careless, even taking her along to his offices – while his wife was off work nursing their baby daughter – for sex sessions during working hours.

She recalled: ‘The staff all knew who I was yet they never said a word to his wife. We had sex pretty much everywhere in his office: on the desk, on the floor, anywhere we could make it exciting. I was so happy to be with someone who was so caring and considerate. He never mentioned a wife and certainly not his new baby daughter. One of the memories that turns my stomach now is when we were out one night at dinner and he produced some photographs of a baby girl. He told me she was his new niece – but in fact it was his own daughter, who was just a few months old. Later he sent more photographs of her to my phone. That makes me really angry now to think that he would deny his own daughter as well as betraying his wife.’

Victoria would remain in ignorance until June last year when, unable to get through to Upton on his mobile phone one day, she rang his office.

‘I asked if Darren was there and a secretary said, “I’ll let you speak to his wife” and transferred the call. I felt numb with shock. Tina Upton [who was also the company secretary] answered and told me Darren was being questioned by police over financial irregularities. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Not only was I having to take in that he had a wife I hadn’t known anything about, but he was in some sort of financial trouble. Then, without asking me outright if I was Darren’s mistress, Tina suddenly said that she’d suspected her husband was having an affair for some time but “had not pursued it”.

‘I felt distraught and hung up. Soon afterwards, I got a visit from police at the apartment in Manchester. They confirmed what I now knew – that Darren was married and had committed fraud. My Mercedes was taken away and the apartment lease terminated. It was a nightmare of unimaginable proportions and the man I had thought better than all the others who had gone before, turned out to be the biggest b*****d of the lot. How could he do this to a woman who had just given birth to his child? I would never have started seeing him if I had known the truth. It’s despicable.’

‘I felt very foolish. How could I have been so hoodwinked? Life had come crashing down and I found out this wonderful man who had made me feel so complete was already married with a child and had cheated those poor people out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. It was horrendous. Not only did I feel sorry for them but I felt very sorry for his wife. She’s the true victim. How could he do this to a woman who had just given birth to his child? I would never have started seeing him if I had known the truth. It’s despicable.’

The subsequent investigation discovered the total value of Upton’s fraud was £532,000. The firm had about 800 clients, mainly small computer companies, and instead of paying his clients’ corporation tax to the taxman, Upton diverted the cash into his own account. His clients even ended up having to pay penalties for unpaid tax when his crimes were exposed.

Upton had previously been investigated and forced to pay compensation for an unauthorised investment scheme but had continued to commit offences when he was on bail.

Victoria did not attend court last week, having now washed her hands of Upton. She said: ‘I couldn’t bear it. It has brought back too many painful memories. But I want people to know I am not to blame for any of this. I didn’t make him do any of it. He lied to me too.’

The prosecution said many of the clients he deceived felt betrayed as they regarded him as a friend. Other victims said their businesses had been left close to collapse and they had suffered ill health.

Upton’s defence team claimed he made a legitimate annual profit of £250,000, but began offending because he was forced to repay £840,000 to the Financial Services Authority in monthly instalments of £10,000 over the earlier investment scheme, which had not led to criminal charges. Not prepared to cut back on his lifestyle, he then started to misappropriate clients’ funds.

Victoria was never investigated by police, who accepted she had no knowledge of where the funds were coming from. Heartbroken by Upton’s deception, she has attempted to move on, and has thrown her energy into building up her own beauty business. She also had brief relationships with two international footballers since her relationship with Upton ended. Despite everything he has put her through, however, Victoria cannot bring herself to hate Upton.

She said: ‘He hasn’t done me any real harm – he was always a true gentleman to me and I will always remember that about him. He has been described as arrogant but I never saw that side of him. But what he did to his clients, as well as his wife and daughter, was unforgivable. He deserves to be in prison for what he did to them.

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