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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trio of cowboy clampers who pocketed £350,000 from 'bullying' parking fee scam while also collecting benefits are jailed

-Carlton Williams, Lee Stagg and Michael Riddle intimidated their victims, often women with young children, into handing over large sums of cash
-One victim was forced to sit on her car to stop it being towed

By Charles Walford

Carlton Williams (left) Lee Stagg (centre) and Michael Riddle (right) netted up to £350,000 by intimidating members of the public into paying clamping fees

A gang of cowboy clampers netted £350,000 in a three-year ‘bullying’ blackmail campaign on motorists – while fraudulently pocketing thousands of pounds in benefits.

Carlton Williams, 47, Lee Stagg, 43, and Michael Riddle, 30, have now been jailed for the scam which saw them pounce on unsuspecting drivers and charge them up to £600 to free their clamped cars.

They intimidated their victims, often women with young children, into handing over large sums of cash - and sometimes even lifted cars onto tow trucks with the drivers still at the wheel.

One female driver told how the gang warned they would ‘get her’ after she called police to stop her car being towed.

The trio even wore uniforms to make themselves look official.

Police estimate the three men could have netted up to £350,000 from their three-year blackmail campaign against motorists.

Two of the gang, Williams and Stagg, were also found to have illegally claimed £54,000 from the state in council tax, housing benefit and income support - as well as tax evasion.

Williams was jailed for five-and-a-half years and Stagg for three years for fraud and blackmail, while Riddle was handed an 18-month term for his part in the clamping scam.

Williams - considered to be the ringleader - and Stagg operated the firm from Bridgwater, Somerset, with Riddle employed as a clamper.

The court was told that a ‘spotter’ car would lurk, waiting for motorists to park on private land they managed on behalf of shops and businesses.

As soon as they left their vehicles, they would be clamped and a tow truck would be sent within minutes to haul the cars away.

The gang, who were fully licenced to clamp cars, would then aggressively confront the motorists - often giving them little chance to pay the minimum release fee.

They stated on their notices that the price of releasing a clamp was £100, but if the vehicle was towed away this would increase to £350 - rising to £500 if ‘storage fees’ were applied.

Police eventually became inundated with complaints that the clampers were demanding as much as £600 to get their car back if it had been towed away.

They operated their A1 Clamping Services from Bridgwater, Somerset, but expanded their trade in Torbay, Devon, and Staffordshire.

They also targeted their local Bridgwater Carnival in 2006 and towed away numerous cars.

His Honour Judge Graham Hume Jones, sentencing at Taunton Crown Court yesterday, told the trio that they had 'bullied' their victims into parting with their cash.

Police say Williams (left) was the ringleader of the gang. Along with Stagg (centre) and riddle (right) he ran the 'bullying' enterprise for three years

He said: 'It is clear that in the course of this business you extorted considerable sums of money from members of the public by arrogant, bullying and aggressive behaviour.

'You were licensed to clamp cars and I am told you had a form of uniform and badges to show your authenticity.

'In my judgement this aggravates the position because it gave the impression the sums you were demanding and the behaviour you were exhibiting was authentic.

'Thereby you caused great distress and anxiety to the car owners.' The court heard that the trio demanded large cash sums from motorists while operating A1 Clamping Services between 2005 and 2008.

Don Tait, prosecuting, told the court: 'Williams was making money from motorists who fell into his clutches.

'The sums involved were eye-watering. Sgt Paul Endicott, investigating, found motorists were being intimidated into handing over money.

'Many of the motorists were young women - sometimes with children.' Those who protested against the charges were sworn at - or even threatened with extra fines for swearing themselves.

One female victim, in Bridgwater, Somerset, was inside her car when A1 Clamping Services lifted it up to tow it away

Another woman was forced to sit on the roof of her vehicle in a pub car park in Bridgwater to stop the gang from taking it.

A third motorist, Chloe Brant, who successfully got the clamping gang to release her car after calling the police, was told: 'I will get you next time.'

As the business expanded, complaints reached poured in to police from Wells, in Somerset, Torbay and Torquay, in Devon, and even as far away as Staffordshire.

Investigators found that Williams and Stagg were also raking in income support, housing and council tax benefits from the taxpayer - claiming they were unemployed.

They were also not paying income tax or National Insurance contributions.

All three men were arrested in September 2007, but not charged until March 2010.

During that time, the court was told, Williams continued clamping, this time in Bristol.

Williams, from Bridgwater, eventually pleaded guilty to blackmail of £3,775 and making unwarranted demands for money with menaces between, January 1, 2005, and January 1, 2008.

He also admitted benefit fraud totalling £42,518 and engaging in an aggressive commercial practice between July 18, 2009 and April 4, 2010, in Bristol - pocketing £675.

Stagg, also from Bridgwater, Somerset, admitted blackmail for the same amount, making unwarranted demands with menaces and benefit fraud totalling £12,000.

Riddle, from Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to blackmail and making unwarranted demands.

Defence barristers for all three had pleaded for lenient sentences - claiming their clients had spared victims the ordeal of giving evidence in court at a trial.

After sentencing, police said the complex operating to snare Williams, Stagg and Riddle had taken four years - claiming the trio could have netted up to £350,000 from the scam.

Sergeant Paul Endicott, from Avon and Somerset Police, said: 'This case was one of the first of its kind in the country where a multi-agency investigation worked together to prosecute offenders who systematically committed serious offences whilst operating as car clamping enforcers on private land.

'They were able to basically charge what they wanted as there was no defined laws to control their activities.

'The defendants have been sentenced to ten years which reflects the seriousness of the crimes they committed.'

One of their victims, Sally Mendonca, an Army major who lives in York, said she had been visiting a relative in Devon when her car was clamped and towed away.

Speaking after the sentencing, she said: 'I explained the situation to the clamper - I was just back from Iraq for a short time and all my military kit was in that car and how urgently I needed it.

'He laughed and said “I get told these stories all the time”.

Simon De Kayne HM Revenue and Custom’s assistant director of criminal investigation, said the gang had been 'ripping off' the taxpayer.

He said: 'These men were taking their own enforcement action against members of the public, whilst blatantly ripping-off honest UK residents through tax evasion.

'We can only estimate the scale of their fraud, as they only accepted cash and we cannot be certain all their income was banked.

'HMRC will continue to pursue those individuals who believe they can evade their tax liabilities.

'This type of crime not only deprives the Government of vital public funds, but undercuts those businesses who abide by the rules and pay their taxes.'



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