FRAUD investigators today said they were “disappointed” after three Blackpool men were cleared of engineering a £300,000 scam at the expense of wounded soldiers.
And town hall chiefs claimed the “vast majority” of the cash raised through the enterprise “cannot be accounted for”.
William Knight, 51, John Wadsworth, 46, and Patrick Jarrett, 49, walked free from court yesterday after a jury cleared them of fraud.
The case centred on the raising of thousands of pounds through the sale of raffle tickets.
Preston Crown Court heard how fund-raisers in military-style clothing representing Blackpool-based firm Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) UK Ltd visited high streets, shopping centres and event venues across the UK selling raffle tickets.
Tickets cost £2.50 each with the chance to win a prestige car or £10,000 in cash as the company aimed to raise £10,000 for WWP UK Ltd, which would give handouts to needy ex-forces personnel.
It was alleged more than 133,000 tickets for the raffle – run by Keystone Fundraising of which ex-soldier Mr Knight, 51, and Mr Wadsworth, 46, were directors – were sold out of more than 180,000 printed and they generated sales of £332,707.
But none of the proceeds went anywhere near an injured serviceman or woman, according to prosecutors for Blackpool Council’s Trading Standards department.
Mr Knight, of Midgeland Road, Marton, Mr Wadworth, of Church Street, Blackpool, and Mr Jarrett, of Teal Court, Normoss, who was also a Keystone director for a short time, were all cleared of conspiracy to defraud and possession of criminal property, namely the money acquired from the ticket sales, between December 2009 and June 2010.
Following the verdict, Coun Gillian Campbell, cabinet member representing Trading Standards on Blackpool Council, told The Gazette: “This is a hugely disappointing result for us.
“Although the jury found the three men not guilty of a criminal charge, we know more than £300,000 was raised and the vast majority cannot be accounted for.
“What I hope has been highlighted via this case is that you should always check you are happy where money is going when you make a donation.
“The fact this has been heard at crown court shows there was a case to answer.”
During the two-week trial, the jury was told the defendants told investigators they never claimed to be a charity.
Mr Knight – an ex-soldier – said the money from the ticket sales was intended to go on wages and administration costs.
He said the bucket collections were the only source of cash intended for WWP UK Ltd, which was not a registered charity and had offices at Whitehills Business Park, Blackpool.
Giving evidence in court, Mr Knight told the jury all he wanted to do was to make a difference to the lives of injured soldiers.
His plans were flawed but not dishonest, he added. The former member of the Parachute Regiment became a professional fund-raiser after losing part of his left foot in a warehouse accident.
He said it “took over” his life as the enterprise expanded.
Mr Knight told the jury with himself being both “ex services and disabled” he had the idea to raise funds to give individual donations to help former soldiers with the costs of such things as installing stair lifts, widening doors for wheelchairs and similar improvements.
The prosecution claimed soldiers charity Help for Heroes had previously worked with Keystone on a different competition draw but the charity later cut its ties and said it did not want the company collecting monies on its behalf.
Mr Knight handed over a donation to Help for Heroes from that draw of around £10,000.
Another £10,000 from the later draw was due to be given to Help For Heroes – until they decided not to be involved with Mr Knight and his organisation, the court heard.
And on the day of the handover, December 21, 2009, there was a burglary at the Wounded Warrior office and £16,000 was stolen.
The culprit has not been found and no-one has been charged with that offence, the court heard.
Trading Standards seized competition tickets, laptop computers, display banners and a paying-in book from their Blackpool offices in May 2010.
Jurors were told Mr Wadsworth was “foolish and incompetent but not dishonest”. He was “a follower” to “ideas man” Mr Knight and had implemented those ideas but not dishonestly.
Counsel for Mr Jarrett said he was named a director of Keystone against his wishes. He was a ticket seller himself and trained others.
A transcript of what Mr Jarrett said during his interview was read out during the trial which said: “The most important ground rule was to never say we are a charity and those instructions came from Bill (William Knight).
“We always had to make sure the customer was happy it wasn’t a charity and always explained what the Wounded Warrior Project is for and what it would do.”