TV STAR IS £200,000 VICTIM OF SPANISH PROPERTY SWINDLE
OUT OF POCKET: BBC presenter Martin Roberts with his partner Kirsty and their son Scott at their hom
By Ted Jeory
PROFESSIONAL footballers and a TV presenter are among scores of innocent victims who fear they have lost millions of pounds in murky Spanish property deals that were arranged by a British company linked to a convicted fraudster who disappeared in a mysterious plane crash earlier this year.
Martin Roberts, presenter of the BBC's daytime TV show Homes Under the Hammer, which advises viewers how to profit from property, has alone lost hundreds of thousands of pounds through his association with controversial West Midlands company, Ocean View Properties.
The company formerly sponsored Premiership side Aston Villa, and some of its players, and those of Birmingham City, are also believed to have lost out.
Victims are now demanding to know what has happened to their money.
A Sunday Express investigation has discovered that the company's trail stretches from Staffordshire and Spain to Morocco, Mexico and the Caribbean.
|RIDDLE: Conman Sean Woodhall, reported missing after a mystery plane crash in Brazil
It also leads to buy-to-let millionaire Colin Thomas, and Sean Woodhall, a man former associates nicknamed "Slippery Sean" for his reputation for escaping debts and who went missing after his light aircraft crashed in a Brazilian forest in May.
Although officially feared dead, his body-and those of three other businessmen-has never been found. Some former colleagues are convinced the crash was staged.
Woodhall had moved to Spain in 2001 after receiving an 18-month suspended prison sentence for a £250,000 fraud involving Birmingham-based franchising venture Advan.
It was the same year that property magnate Colin Thomas set up his Ocean View properties empire, whose sales pledge was "to help you to find what you are looking for with the minimum of fuss, stress and worry".
He had already made his fortune in the UK buy-to-let sector and wanted to tap into the then booming holiday homes market in the Costa del Sol.
Woodhall, who was 43 when he disappeared in May, was his Spanish dealmaker and he scoured the Costa del Sol building relationships with developers and planning officials and found sites ripe for exploitation.
In Britain, Mr Thomas created a network of travel agents, mortgage brokers and franchisees to persuade people of the potentially huge profits and rental yields if they bought apartments "off-plan".
Respected journalist Mr Roberts, a former presenter of ITV's Wish You Were Here, became a franchisee in Bath with his partner Kirsty Withyman in 2002 and for the next three years, they earned commissions signing up new customers across the south of England.
At the outset, the couple and many customers were generally happy with Ocean View. However, in 2005 the couple had a major falling out with the company's head office in Longdon, Staffs.
|The country club that has never been built
They were concerned the company was selling clients "sub-standard" properties, Ms Withyman said.
They cut their ties, but by that time they had already invested more than £200,000 of their own money in three off-plan apartments at the planned luxury Estepona Beach and Country Club complex near Malaga.
Many others were also sucked into the same dream.
One was Elizabeth Taylor, a 58-year-old medical secretary from Chichester, West Sussex.
She wanted to secure a regular income to cover the rest home fees of her elderly father-a former long serving secretary to the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth-by investing his lifetime savings in a Spanish buy-to-let property.
She handed over a £5,000 holding deposit on a two-bedroom apartment to the company's Bath office, then flew out with a group of other customers, including the brother of an unnamed footballer, to view the site.
She returned, put aside her lingering doubts and via Ocean View exchanged contracts with the Spanish developer.
She then paid the full 90,850 euros deposit to Ocean View's Barclays account in Birmingham; the company said it would transfer the bulk of the cash to the developer's account.
She was also told the property would be completed within two years.
However, in 2006, a year before expected completion, disaster struck when Spanish detectives unearthed a massive corruption ring involving developers and government officials throughout the Costa del Sol.
Planning permission was frozen indefinitely on several sites, including the Estepona Beach and Country Club.
Panicking, Mrs Taylor demanded a refund from Ocean View, but a saleswoman refused claiming it was locked in a Spanish escrow account.
Instead, Ocean View told her the Spanish developer was willing to transfer her Estepona contract to other properties in which he was involved.
Mrs Taylor felt she had no choice but to accept a deal at the incomplete five-star Tafedna Bay resort in Morocco earlier this year.
But since then, despite repeated attempts to contact the company by letter and telephone, she and many others throughout Britain who are set to sue have heard nothing.
In fact, throughout the entire time of Mrs Taylor's involvement, Ocean View was in dire financial straits, according to its own accounts.
Even for the financial year ended October 2006-it has failed to file accounts for 2007-the company was in trouble.
Its own auditors said that with annual losses of £11.5million and net debts of £36million, they had major doubts the company could continue as a going concern.
A "management charge" of £5.4million to the group's parent company, which allowed sole shareholder Mr Thomas to pay himself £1.7million dividends in 2005 and 2006, did not help matters.
However, the directors ploughed on, insisting their troubles were largely down to technical accounting rules and claimed in their annual report to be "concentrating" on new business opportunities in Morocco, Mexico and the Caribbean-precisely to where Sean Woodhall had now turned his attention.
John Howell, senior partner at International Law Partnerships, which has represented several Ocean View victims, is convinced the money from the Spanish investments was channelled to the Caribbean.
He said he was also pessimistic for the return of any cash to customers.
"All the money has gone," he said. "The company has some explaining to do.
"From what we have seen, the company's approach appears to have been very reckless.
"You'd have to sue the people behind the company and get hold of their assets. "
When the Sunday Express questioned Mr Thomas at his luxury home in Yoxall, Staffs, which according to Land Registry records is solely owned by his partner Michele de Havilland, he said his company had done nothing wrong and no customer had or will lose out.
Instead, he said customers would need to apply for a refund scheme run by a Spanish partner company, Sun Gulf, in February.
"We're not a wealthy company," he explained.
"We were just estate agents. The money went straight to the developers. The developers now have the money.
"We would have been paid money by a client, which was then handed to a developer so it just passes through an account. We retained a commission.
"We have helped find our customers alternative properties in Spain and the Dominican Republic.
"The developer in Spain is not crooked. He has fallen foul of corruption in Spain.
"He was not prepared to pay bribes to get a building licence, but the corruption has now been sorted out and the licence will come soon."
Asked about his involvement with Sean Woodhall, he said: "He was our agent in Spain who tried to find development sites for us between 2001 and 2004. He wasn't a friend of mine. "We parted company after I found out he was a fraudster in 2004."
His responses cut no ice with the company's victims however.
Ms Withyman said: "We've had three years of hell with all this. We've lost hundreds of thousands of pounds and we're not alone, there are many other victims who have been very cleverly misled.
"People start to wonder whether the beach and country club was just a figment of the company's imagination.
"The people who caused all this deserve what's coming to them."
Meanwhile, in West Sussex, Mrs Taylor said she had more immediate concerns.
"I've been dreading telling my father about this, but he needs to know. He'll be heartbroken beyond words."
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