THEY trusted her as a family friend but conwoman Joanne Brooks was secretly siphoning off thousands of pounds from her employers.
Brooks took £158,000 from Laura and Roy Carvalho, leaving them heartbroken and virtually penniless.
Now Brooks, 42, of Binsteed Road, Buckland, Portsmouth, has admitted two counts of fraud stretching from October 2009 to July 2011.
Mum-of-one Mrs Carvalho, 47, said: ‘She was a proper family friend. That’s what hit us hardest.’
Brooks began to weave her web of lies after starting work in an administrative role at the couple’s business, CA Automotive, in Gosport. The firm worked on modifying BMW cars.
After about a year she took on more responsibility.
Brooks became involved with the firm’s accounts while Mrs Carvalho cared for the couple’s young son.
Then the company started getting into debt.
Mr Carvalho, 48, said: ‘We were constantly in debt and we were constantly struggling to pay for things. We just kept questioning ourselves.
‘Basically I blamed myself. I thought I wasn’t doing a proper job as a company head and I wasn’t working hard enough.’
The couple’s suspicions were aroused when one creditor kept asking for payment – despite Brooks claiming the bill had been settled.
Mr Carvalho said: ‘Laura came in one day and said “do you think there’s any chance that she could be stitching us up?”’
The couple asked for copies of cheques from their bank – and on their arrival were horrified to discover the recipient had been Joanne Brooks.
They sought legal advice and confronted her at work, thinking the total of stolen cash was £5,000.
Further investigations revealed it was £158,000.
Brooks was arrested and later charged.
Meanwhile Mr and Mrs Carvalho have had to put their house up for sale, liquidate their business and borrow money from friends and family just to stay afloat.
Heartbreakingly, they fear they will not be able to provide for the future of their son – who they struggled for 12 years to conceive.
Mrs Carvalho said: ‘Most of our sorrow is because of our son, because we can’t provide for our new son.
‘We had managed somehow to put aside some money for his future for him, and when all this happened we had to use it all.
‘We have got no savings for him.
‘We had to borrow from everybody to keep going.’
Brooks pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud – one between October 5, 2009 and September 23, 2011 and a second count between June 2010 and July 2011.
She is due to be sentenced at Portsmouth Crown Court in October.