Gosport-based Marvels and Meltdowns was almost brought to financial ruin after its co-founder and treasurer, Tricia Lyons, helped herself to £4,135 between April 12, 2016 and February 24, 2020.
Appearing before magistrates in Portsmouth for sentencing yesterday, the court heard how the 39-year-old mum ‘abused her position of trust’ to steal the funds, spending cash meant to help needy families on herself instead.
Deceitful Lyons, of Cornwall Close, Gosport, splashed out on a fancy meal at a Japanese restaurant, £515 on ice skating blades, £190 at Tesco and even spent charity cash on a trip to Alton Towers.
Her criminal spending spree was only uncovered in March last year, after Marvels and Meltdown’s innocent co-founder, Shandrika Day, and manager Nikki Martin, found discrepancies in the accounts.
By that time, the charity – which supports some 1,400 families across the area and has previously supported Lyons’ two autistic children – had been left with just £500 in its accounts.
Lyons has now been handed a a 24-week jail term, suspended for 12 months, after admitting defrauding the charity. She has also been ordered to pay £2,429.39 in compensation, which covers the cash not yet recovered.
Speaking in court as Lyons wept silently in the dock, Shandrika said: ‘This kind of crime is one of the sneakiest, deceitful and is quite frankly so utterly disgusting that it deserves a harsh sentence.
‘For such a long time I was just completely broken by the betrayal, I was an emotional wreck and struggling at home and at work mentally and physically.
‘Tricia was my best friend, or that is how I thought of her….It felt like everything we had built was just a big lie and meant absolutely nothing to her.
‘Still to this day I feel like we are still living in the shadow of Tricia stealing from the charity. I am still in shock that she would choose to write cheques to herself paid.’
The court heard how Lyons and Shandrika banded together in 2015 to set up the specialist charity after spotting a lack of support for children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Last year Lyons quit ‘without explanation’ when challenged on the day the money was found missing, which prompted a police investigation.
Prosecutor Lucy Linington said £1,500 of the cash stolen had been recovered but added there was still further financial fallout to come following Lyons’ fraud.
‘Ms Lyons’ offence has had a catastrophic impact on the charity’s ability to attract future funding,’ she told the court.
‘By way of example, a large local supermarket will have no dealings with this charity for some two years because one of the co-founders has a conviction for fraud.
‘There have been a lot of organisations, who had been willing to work with this charity, but following the last hearing, where a guilty plea was entered...have effectively now decided to walk away from supporting this charity.’
She added: ‘This defendant has two autistic children, knowing fully the challenges autism creates for families and individuals alike, she has still gone out and defrauded her own charity.’
Nikki said she and the rest of the team had been left devastated by Lyons’ crimes – but insisted Marvels and Meltdowns would come back stronger than ever.
Speaking outside of court, she added: ‘We will rise like a phoenix from the ashes. We will not be going anywhere. There are so many families that need our support.’
Tim Sparkes, defending Lyons, urged the court to look at his client’s previous good character and charity work in mitigation.
He added: ‘Things went very badly wrong. What she did was very bad but prior to that. She did a lot of good setting up the charity.’