By Ted Jeory A BRITISH company which used TV presenters and sports stars to attract investors into a suspected international property scam went bust with a black hole of debts worth “at least” £42million, investigators have revealed.
Official Receiver Ken Beasley told a meeting of creditors of Ocean View Properties on Friday that it could take years to unravel the company’s “complex” finances.
Forensic accountants from Grant Thornton will now analyse thousands of cross-border transactions, stretching from Britain to Spain, Morocco and the Dominican Republic, after they were appointed liquidators at the meeting in Manchester.
Mr Beasley told creditors: “The total indebtedness of the company is at least £42million, but it could be much more as and when more people come forward.
“It could take years to sort out because pursuing legal actions in foreign countries is a minefield.”
Ocean View went into compulsory liquidation earlier this year amid a series of exposés in the Sunday Express.
We revealed how hundreds of investors have been left at least £80,000 each out of pocket after major off-plan property deals in Spain’s Costa del Sol never materialised.
Customers were told their cash was being held in legal escrow accounts, but when they asked for refunds, the money had disappeared.
One victim was Christine Flanagan, a company director from Bramhall, Cheshire, who in late 2005 invested £85,000 in a two-bed apartment in Estepona, near Marbella.
She said: “I’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer and wanted somewhere to escape to and just live the rest of my life to the full. But here I am now, struggling again—I don’t feel optimistic I’ll get my money back. I just want justice now.”
Fraud experts from Staffordshire Police, where the company was based, the City of London Police and the Serious Fraud Office are currently examining dozens of allegations of criminal wrongdoing.
Ocean View was set up in 2001 by buy-to-let millionaire Colin Thomas, other businessmen and his friend Sean Woodhall, a convicted fraudster.
Through slick marketing and encouragement from a network of sales agents, financial advisers and “recommended” conveyancing lawyers, investors were persuaded to buy off-plan apartments in southern Spain.
Many remortgaged UK homes to finance their dream buys.
Among the salesmen who took Britons to Spanish development sites was Martin Roberts, the presenter of the BBC’s Homes Under the Hammer property programme.
He and his partner Kirsty Withyman later fell out with Ocean View, claiming they are victims and owed some £200,000.
There is no suggestion the couple were involved in any wrongdoing.
England international footballers Gareth Barry and Alan Smith also bought—successfully—through salesmen linked to Ocean View.
However, it is the involvement of international playboy Sean Woodhall that could provide investigators with the clearest trail.
His job was to find development sites for Colin Thomas, but when the pair fell out in 2005, Woodhall set up his own company, Worldwide Destinations, which copied the Ocean View model in Egypt, Brazil and the Dominican Republic.
In May last year, a light aircraft said to be carrying the conman was reported to have crashed over Brazil.
His body has never been recovered, but he was declared dead last autumn.
The receivers of his estate are accountants Grant Thornton, who are also the administrators for the now failed Worldwide Destinations.
The man in charge of both projects is Grant Thornton director Ian Richardson.
In another twist to the saga on Friday, Mr Richardson was also appointed the liquidator of Ocean View.
He assured creditors there was “no conflict of interest”.
“If one arises, I’ll inform the court immediately,” he told the Sunday Express.
A full-blown creditors’ meeting is due in six months.
Colin Thomas and everyone else connected to Ocean View Properties have strongly denied any wrongdoing, claiming they are victims of separate corruption scandals in Spain.