Horse & Hound has helped bring rogue horsebox builder Claire Wales, owner of Highbarn Horseboxes, to justice after numbers of readers came forward with evidence when an H&H news story highlighted problems with the firm.

Mrs Wales appeared in Swaffham Magistrates Court last Tuesday, 24 April, charged with three offences of deception and one of theft after taking deposits from customers but failing to deliver horseboxes. She pleaded guilty to all four counts and has been referred to crown court for sentencing.

Detective Constable Sally Wright from Norfolk CID has been leading the investigation since May last year, a month after H&H broke the story.

“I’m not surprised she’s pleaded guilty. We did a lot of work on this case, which has helped to get a guilty plea,” said DC Wright. “The more complainants you have in a case, the stronger it’s going to be. If people hadn’t come forward in such numbers [as a result of an H&H news story about Claire Wales] we probably wouldn’t have had such a strong case.

She added: “Hopefully, the people affected by this case can soon start putting it behind them.”

DC Wright is expecting a date for Mrs Wales’s sentencing will come up in about a month, at either Norwich or King’s Lynn Crown Court.

Mrs Wales was charged with obtaining money transfer by deception and theft between March 2005 and March 2006. The sums involved in the four instances examined in court totalled £39,400.

Speaking in Mrs Wales’s defence, lawyer Mr Savory told the court she had not intentionally gone out to defraud, but was guilty of having a bad business plan. He said she was “hopelessly optimistic” and that by ignoring the financial situation things had developed “from a trot into a gallop very quickly”.

He added that in an effort to pay off the debts, Mrs Wales and her husband, Andrew, had remortgaged their house, and Mr Wales has set up a new horsebox building business — AW Engineering — for trade only.

In March, Mrs Wales spoke to H&H, saying: “We’re going to do our utmost to return depositors’ money.

“We set up AW Engineering to try to clear our creditors. It’s going very well and I would like to stress that we don’t just hope to return the money, we will return the money,” she said. “We don’t supply the public and never will — we work with a select number of traders and do not work on a deposit system any more.”

H&H readers who suffered at the hands of Mrs Wales expressed their relief at her guilty plea.

“When H&H published the articles, it gave us [victims] a chance to find one another, compare our situations and move things on together,” said Robert Horton-Smith, one of the victims over whom Mrs Wales was charged.

He ordered a lorry from her in November 2005. A year later, after a five-month legal battle, he eventually recovered his box — but only because he insisted on being registered as the owner of the chassis cab and buying parts of the lorry as “progress payments”, rather than leaving a cash deposit.

He is pleased that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has charged Mrs Wales, and added: “I think it’s very important to try to protect other people, as well as our own interests.”

Suzy Buttress, who lost a deposit of £5,000, said: “The police were very interested to read what H&H had printed.”

She stressed her disappointment that Mrs Wales was only eventually charged over four cases where she had taken second deposits.

“When I and my friend, Debbie Rutherford, left our deposits, Claire Wales was in dire straits and obviously had no intention of building anything. The stories she made up were unbelievable,” said Mrs Buttress.

Neil Winnie did leave two deposits, and Mrs Wales pleaded guilty to obtaining £8,000 from him by deception between February and March 2006.

“I made two payments, in February and March last year, for a three-horse box, which should have cost £30,000 in total,” he said. “Though I did contact the police immediately Claire Wales went bust, I wanted to remain in contact with her in case I could get my lorry. Although my name wasn’t mentioned with the others in the press, I was feeding information back to them.

“But I finally called it a day last October, when Claire Wales admitted that there was no money and no lorry.”

Additional reporting by Steffi de Bootman.

This news story was first published in Horse & Hound (3 May, ’07)