A former double glazing salesman who lured thousands of people to invest £226m into a Caribbean holiday home “Ponzi scheme” and then lost their money has been jailed for 12 years.
David Ames, 70, convinced more than 8,000 unsuspecting backers to part with their life savings, promising that he would build them properties in St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, Barbados and other exotic locations.
He helped promote his investment scheme through celebrity endorsements and even had the backing of Liverpool Football Club, as well as several Caribbean heads of state.
Yet in reality, his company - Harlequin Group - had no other sources of funding and he had been warned that its unsustainable business was likely to fail.
The vast majority of homes were never built and the business collapsed in 2013.
Ames and his family were enriched to the tune of £6.2m by the business and jetted off on luxurious international holidays, travelled in business class and stayed in expensive hotels. Ames even employed his own personal chauffeur.
Almost all of his victims, most of whom are elderly British pensioners who ploughed their retirement savings into the scheme, have nothing to show for their investment.
Many have now been forced to work into old age and remortgage their homes after having their finances ruined.
The scandal prompted an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and on Friday Ames was jailed at Southwark Crown Court by Judge Christopher Hehir.
It came after Ames was convicted by a jury in August for two counts of fraud by abuse of position between 2010 and 2015.
Handing down the jail sentence, Judge Hehir told Ames: “You were a slick and plausible salesman and thoroughly dishonest.
“You are a menace to anybody unfortunate enough to do business with you.”
Lisa Osofsky, director of the SFO, said: “Those who are trusted with investors’ money have a fundamental duty to safeguard the interests of those investors.
“As today’s sentencing shows, we will not tolerate those who abuse that trust."
Overall, Ames took more than 8,200 deposits for holiday homes that would supposedly be located across the Caribbean. Just 28 investors ever received their properties.
The only resort even partially built by Harlequin was Buccament Bay, located in St Vincent and the Grenadines, a chain of islands that was once a favourite holiday destination of Princess Margaret.
There, Ames took deposits for 1,900 properties but only 195 were ever built.
Investors were told that for a £1,000 reservation fee and a 30pc deposit - which they could borrow - they could secure themselves one of the luxury homes. Only 15pc went towards construction, with the rest going to sales commissions and other fees.
At a proposed development in St Lucia, Harlequin touted Bali-style beach villas for £550,000.
Harlequin’s promotional material invited potential investors to “have a knock about” at a tennis academy created by Australian star Pat Cash, “play football with the legends” at a football school run by Liverpool FC, or tee off on golf courses designed by South African champion Gary Player.
Former Premier League footballer Andy Townsend also appeared on Harlequin’s website and television property expert Phil Spencer appeared in a promotional video saying he had invested in the scheme
Like the scheme's victims, the celebrities and the football club had been duped by Ames.
Harlequin was started in 2005 by Ames, a twice-bankrupt from Essex who had previously set up failed garden furniture and window businesses.
A charismatic salesman, he installed his wife and two sons in directorships at his new company and used an army of salesmen and other middlemen to flog the holiday properties to his victims.
One of his sons was at one stage paid £10,000 a month. Meanwhile, Ames and his wife, Carol, 70, bought themselves a mansion reportedly now worth £2m.
By the time of Ames’ trial, the couple had been declared bankrupt - Ames for the third time - and were living in a caravan.
The SFO said Ames had been advised by insolvency experts that his venture was doomed to fail in 2011 but he pressed on regardless.
Because each investor was only putting up 30pc of the cost of their holiday homes, and Harlequin had no other sources of funding, Ames was financing the remaining 70pc with funds that were meant for other properties.
This created a pyramid scheme, where each new property promised by the company to an investor necessitated bringing more investors to come on board, and so on.
In a previous High Court trial where Ames’ accountant, Martin MacDonald of Wilkins Kennedy, was found to be negligent, the judge said it was clear that Ames had lied repeatedly in the course of his disastrous business dealings.
But he said it was unclear whether the scheme had been dishonest “from start to finish”, with Ames exhibiting a “stubborn desire to believe that everything would somehow turn out for the best”.
Ames considered himself a “visionary”, Mr Justice Coulson said, before adding: "I consider that he was more of a Walter Mitty-type figure who, through an unhappy mixture of dishonesty, naivety and incompetence, has caused irreparable loss to thousands of people.”
In addition to his 12-year prison sentence, Ames will be disqualified as a company director for 15 years.