Accountant jailed over huge theft while boss was caring for terminally ill wife

A cold-hearted and devious accountant who stole £252,000 while his boss cared for his terminally ill wife has been jailed.

Christopher Sopp defrauded Town Centre Automobiles, a Citroen dealership in Sunderland, over a period of six years in a sophisticated operation which brought the company to the brink of collapse.

Sopp was paid more than £70,000 a year, received cars for himself and his family, Sunderland AFC season tickets and exotic paid-for holidays – but it wasn’t enough for him.

In 2017, his boss and close friend Stephen Smith confided in his trusted accountant that the NHS could do no more for his wife’s cancer and that he needed to find £890,000 for treatment overseas – but Sopp’s stealing continued.

Sentencing the 53-year-old of Thornhill Park, Sunderland, to three years imprisonment, Judge Gittins said Sopp “was a man who had it all but wanted more”.

Newcastle Crown Court heard on Friday how Sopp worked his way up to become head financial operator at the garage after starting as an accountant in the early 2000s. He became close personal friends with owner Stephen Smith, telling him he was “the brother he never had”.

Prosecutor Paul Cross detailed how Sopp’s offending began in 2012, first by diverting more than £5,600 in company funds to pay off the finance on his own car.

(Image: Northumbria Police)

Over the next six years, he wrote cheques for tens of thousands of pounds out to himself, covering his tracks by tampering with company books to make it look like the money was accounted for.

In a heartbreaking victim impact statement, Mr Smith said: “He was a valued and trusted colleague and soon became a close friend, we went out together with our families.

“He became more like family than an employee, I loved him like a brother and trusted him totally, so much so that I included him in my will in 2010.”

In 2015, Mr Smith took a step back from the business in order to spend more time caring for his dying wife.

Following the departure of his brother from the company, Mr Smith encouraged Sopp to buy company shares and entrusted the day-to-day running of the firm to him.

But Sopp’s plot began to unravel when it came to light he was having an affair, rocking the unflinching trust and confidence colleagues once had him.

Mr Smith said: “He knew this was a very difficult time for me and I thought my company was in the safe hands of someone who loved it as much as I did and wouldn’t betray me or the staff.

“While I was trying to raise money to save my wife’s life, he was stealing money from the company.

“We found out he was having an affair – he said he was at company meetings but he was deceiving us and his wife and children.”

When it emerged the company had become dangerously overdrawn on Sopp’s watch, he was suspended and Mr Smith was forced to divert his attention away from his wife in order to battle to save the firm.

He called Sopp the “worst type of criminal” who acted purely out of selfishness, describing him as a “cold-hearted, calculated narcissist, a liar and a thief”.

Another company director, Christopher Marshall, said Sopp had “paralysed the company with problems he created so would not be discovered”.

He added: “He was not motivated by genuine financial need, addiction or a personal crisis – it was just pure greed.”

Defending, Daniel Cordey said Sopp had suffered from depression and endured a difficult start to life after being adopted but losing both parents by his early twenties, adding that he has now “lost everything.”

He said: “My client was always very anxious throughout his marriage to provide for his family…it might not be accepted by all those listening but this was what drove him, not paying for some sort of high living.”

The court heard how Sopp is largely estranged from his family now and has worked as an Argos delivery driver and postman since being sacked and arrested.

In damning sentencing remarks, Judge Gittins said the crimes crossed into the threshold of the most serious kind of theft because of the level of planning involved and the years-long abuse of trust.

He said he was “paid well by anyone’s standards” but wanted more, even using some of the stolen money to purchase shares in the company to further increase his own income.

Judge Gittins said: “It was only when your offending was discovered that it stopped. You felt entitled to take the money and that you had not been adequately remunerated or appreciated.

“From what I’ve heard of this case, that is victim-blaming of the worst kind.”

He added: “You were cold-hearted and callous toward Mr Smith and carried on offending despite knowing about his wife’s illness and telling him to his face that you were doing all you could to assist him.

“You did this knowing he was looking for large sums of money to pay for treatment.”

Mr Gittins told the court there was an indication “jewelry items of significant value” were purchased by Sopp during the latter part of the offending which is “evidence of some extravagance, not family day to day living costs”.

Judge Gittins was at pains to point out customer money was never at risk and the company has gone to great lengths to rebuild trust with clients, staff, banks and Citroen.

Sentencing him to three years imprisonment on four counts of theft and false accounting, Judge Gittins also confirmed a Proceedings Of Crime Act hearing will take place in the future in an attempt to recover the stolen funds.

Chronicle Live – Sunderland