Wales and Lions star Gareth Cooper conned out of more than £1 million by his own wife and friend

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Former Wales and British and Irish Lions scrum half Gareth Cooper was left “devastated” after his wife and friend defrauded him out of more than £1 million.

The 40-year-old rugby star from Bridgend had to move back in with his parents, who used their pension savings to fund legal fees amounting to tens of thousands of pounds.

“I was deceived and manipulated by the person I trusted the most – my wife and the mother of my children,” he said in a victim personal statement read out at Cardiff Crown Court .

The case of his then-wife Debra Leyshon, friend and business partner Simon Thomas and associate Mark Lee was listed for sentence on Tuesday.

Roger Griffiths, prosecuting, said the case involved the defendants fraudulently obtaining mortgages and loans.

The court heard Mr Cooper met Leyshon in 2001 and they married four years later. The couple moved into his house in Pencoed and had three children together.

Prosecutors said he used his rugby earnings to buy a property in Pencoed as an investment in 2006, followed by three other properties.

Mr Griffiths told the court: “He realised his playing days were numbered.”

The court heard he set up a company called Cooper Freight Services, but was not involved in the day-to-day running of the business, which was dealt with by his wife and Thomas.



Gareth Cooper in action for Wales against New Zealand in 2004

Prosecutors said Mr Cooper carried on playing professional rugby and Cooper Freight seemed to be doing well.

He had the idea of converting a storage unit into a gym called No 9 Fitness – a reference to the position he played.

Mr Griffiths said the gym “became very popular very quickly” and Mr Cooper decided to set up KGS Gym, adding: “He trusted his wife and friend.”

The court heard Leyshon and Thomas gave him the impression the businesses were “thriving” and he had no reason to doubt them.

Mr Griffiths said: “The opposite was true. The businesses were in financial trouble. Dishonest methods were used to keep them going.”

The court heard some short-term loans and some large loans were used to keep the companies afloat.

It was summer 2016 when Mr Cooper discovered his wife had taken out loans and mortgages without him knowing.

Their family home had been re-mortgaged and the four other properties had been transferred into their joint name and mortgaged.

Mr Griffiths said: “He knew nothing about this. He took no part in the application process at all.”



Tom Shanklin (left) and Gareth Cooper celebrate victory over Australia in 2008

In February 2017, Mr Cooper received an email from a solicitor telling him he had been made bankrupt and should have attended court.

He was removed from bankruptcy a month later when it was accepted he had been the victim of fraud.

Mr Cooper reported matters to the police in early 2017 and there was a “lengthy” police investigation. Prosecutors said some of the loan companies did not cooperate with the police.

In his statement, Mr Cooper said: “This has had a profound and devastating effect on both me and my family.

“I was happily married with three children, enjoying a career playing a sport I excelled in for many years.”

He said he had to consider other plans, due to injury, and met Thomas through a mutual friend.

Mr Cooper said Thomas gave the impression of being a “successful businessman” and they had the idea of going into business together.

He said they spent time cycling and playing golf together, adding: “Our business relationship and friendship grew from there. I did eventually have concerns about his truthfulness.”

The scrum half said he was “not a businessman”, but enjoyed being involved in meetings and left the running of the business to his wife and friend.

He added: “During the last three to four of our marriage, Debra changed. She became more distant.

“She became very secretive about how the businesses were going. When I asked her, she would fob me off.”

He said his wife and Thomas held “secret meetings” and he did not understand why she did not speak to him about the situation.

Mr Cooper said he went from having a successful career playing rugby and letting properties to having his home re-possessed by the bank.

He added: “That resulted in me moving back in with my parents. I have had to rely on the financial support of my parents to pay legal bills.”

Mr Cooper said his parents supported him through his rugby career and have supported him throughout the case.

He said his parents cashed in their pensions to pay his legal fees, with the total costs to them amounting to more than £120,000.

His statement continued: “[This] at a time when they should be planning for their retirement. I will always be profoundly grateful for their support.”

The court heard Mr Cooper and his mother were both diagnosed with anxiety and depression. He added: “I do not think I will ever be the same again.

“Debra and I are now divorced. I cannot forgive what she has done, but she is the mother of my children.”

Leyshon made full admissions when she was interviewed by the police and was due to be a prosecution witness in her co-defendant Thomas’ trial.

The 41-year-old from Wind Street in Laleston, Bridgend, admitted 13 counts of fraud, amounting to just over £1 million.

Lucy Crowther, defending, told the court she had no previous convictions and asked for an alternative to immediate custody.

She said Leyshon never intended to cause loss to her husband and the frauds were not for “high living” or “personal indulgence”, but to keep the businesses afloat.

Ms Crowther described her client as “a dedicated, hard-working, well-meaning individual who lost her way”.

She said there was a “substantial delay” following her first police interview in March 2017 and it took two years for her to be charged, but she cooperated fully with the investigation.

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Thomas, 47, from Beaconsfield in Wick, Cowbridge , admitted two counts of fraud, with his involvement adding up to £380,000.

The court heard he witnessed a fraudulent mortgage application for £330,000 to re-mortgage the couple’s matrimonial home.

Prosecutors said he also pretended to be Mr Cooper during a phone call, which was recorded and analysed by the police.

Thomas was interviewed in March 2017 and denied doing anything wrong.

He was interviewed again in September that year and the phone call was played to him. He claimed he did not know anything about it and suggested it must have been someone else.

When he was interviewed in February this year, he maintained the voice in the recording was not his and suggested it was a mistake.

Thomas also suggested the allegations were made up for Mr Cooper and Leyshon to get a better divorce settlement.

The court heard he had no previous convictions and pleaded guilty at trial. His basis of plea was not disputed by the prosecution.

Lee, 43, from Lower Hill in Barton Road, Exeter, admitted one count of fraud amounting to £50,000.

Prosecutors said he went to see a solicitor pretending to be Mr Cooper, with a driving licence showing his photograph and Mr Cooper’s details.

When he was interviewed, he said Leyshon told him she needed £50,000 or the business would fail. She said her husband was out of the country and she needed someone to sign his name.

Lee accepted pretending to be Mr Cooper and signing the document, but stated he was not aware of the fake driving licence.

The court heard he was given a four-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months, in March 2018 and disqualified from being a company director for an offence relating to bankruptcy.

His counsel said Lee worked as a subcontractor a day or two a week and never had any control of the finances, although he was aware the business was having financial difficulties.

He said they stopped paying him and he stood to lose £15,000 he had already earned if the business failed, so he felt he had no choice but to help it survive.

The court heard Lee had been affected by “severe” mental health problems and has been engaging with treatment.

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Judge David Wynn Morgan said: “This case presents an extremely difficult sentencing exercise. The court is going to need time to reflect. I need time to think about this.”

He remanded all three defendants in custody until Friday. The case will be listed for mention under the Proceeds of Crime Act on June 12.



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