A former Australian TV presenter jailed for inventing a “cruel lie” around a dying child to con Trade Me buyers out of $35,000 is appealing her conviction, relying on 13-year-old phone records.
Simone Anne Wright, who also went by Simone Williams and Smith, denied making up stories of a terminally ill son being cared for at Auckland’s Starship Hospital to sell motorbikes, a spa bath and other items worth thousands of dollars on Trade Me.
A court heard how adverts surfaced on Trade Me back in 2008 for a Kawasaki motorcycle which said, “Our son has cancer and can no longer ride his pride and joy”.
The Crown alleged the sick child was fictitious and made up to “engender trust and sympathy”.
Wright said she had nothing to do with the fake trades – and blamed former husband Paul James Bennett who last July was jailed for more than three years after admitting a series of frauds worth $580,000.
She claimed he controlled everything.
But after a judge-alone trial at Christchurch District Court last year, she was found guilty on all seven charges of obtaining by deception.
In finding her guilty, Judge Paul Kellar said it “strains credibility to breaking point” that Wright did not know what was going on.
He called it “brazen, callous and cynical” offending and sentenced her to one year and five months with six months of post-release conditions and further special conditions.
Now, Wright is appealing against her conviction, arguing crucial phone records that were available to her and her defence lawyer were “effectively overlooked” and could have helped prove her innocence.
During the District Court trial, a duped buyer of a motorcycle on Trade Me said he’d tried to ring the seller and had spoken to a woman called “Susan”.
When he was asked if it could’ve been a male posing as a female, the victim laughed and said: “Not a chance”.
The trial judge concluded that “Susan” was actually Simone Wright and said the phone call was a key piece of evidence.
At a hearing at the High Court in Christchurch today before Justice Cameron Mander, Wright, through her new lawyer, Sarah Saunderson-Warner, said there were no such phone calls.
Pointing to the 2008 phone records, Wright claims that the call she’s alleged to have answered, was in fact a voicemail message.
“If she was alert to the phone records, she would’ve told her lawyer to run her case on that basis,” Saunderson-Warner said, adding that so much of the case against Wright was of a circumstantial nature.
Crown prosecutor Jamie Eng today called Wright’s appeal an “opportunistic reconstruction” of the facts, with Wright trying to find any errors during her trial when there were none.
Justice Cameron Mander reserved his decision.
In her evidence during the District Court trial, Wright told how her ex-husband – who she married in Sydney in 2002 – used to tell “spectacular” stories, once claiming he’d once been kidnapped at gunpoint in Hollywood star Russell Crowe’s helicopter by an Australian criminal organisation.
One “big story” was how he had lived in South Africa and worked for the CIA as a helicopter pilot and that he’d been “a witness to all sorts of things”.
“He even bought a nuclear weapon into the story,” she said, along with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s son, Sir Mark Thatcher.
When they met, Bennett allegedly told her to sell her house and car, and that she didn’t need to work anymore.
“Eventually everything was gone. Right down to a small suitcase of clothes,” she said.
“I lost everything… He lied to me our whole relationship. He’s an expert liar.”
They snuck into New Zealand in 2005, sailing across the Tasman Sea from Australia on a yacht and avoiding immigration officials.
Wright claimed they did so because Bennett “feared for his life” and was running from the organised crime syndicate.
The court heard that in May 2008 they were living in Napier when Wright set up two Trade Me accounts and two bank accounts.
On May 27, 2008, a used plug-in spa was listed for sale with its listing saying it was needed to “help pay family medical bills”.
A Dunedin woman won the auction and paid $4065 for the spa.
In an exchange of emails around getting the spa delivered, the seller said they were at Starship Hospital with a son on life support. The buyer offered her best wishes but the spa was never received – and she never heard from the seller again.
Another exchange involved a silage wagon and Suzuki quad bike sold for $16,500. When the items didn’t arrive, the buyer phoned and spoke with a male who said they were at Starship with a nephew who had brain cancer.
A Kawasaki motorcycle was sold three times, with stories around a sick son.
One witness told how after buying the bike for $2650 he had a phone conversation with a woman called “Susan” and sympathised with her tale of a sick son with a brain tumour.
“As a father with a son the same age you get sucked along. It was a good game,” the witness said.
They soon had concerns of a con and when they tried phoning back, got no answer.
They never got their money back.
Asked by defence counsel Elizabeth Bulger if the “woman” the witness spoke to on the phone could’ve been a man putting on a woman’s voice, he laughed.
“Not a chance,” he said, adding that the woman had a slight accent and might’ve been English.
Judge Kellar ruled that to be a key piece of evidence, finding the witness to be credible, and concluding it would’ve been “simply implausible” for Bennett to have put on a woman’s voice.
Both Wright and Bennett were arrested as the pair sailed into Sydney Harbour after crossing the Tasman Sea from Northland on a crippled yacht in February 2015.
Wright was extradited from Australia to New Zealand in November 2018.
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