SERIAL conman Christopher Baines, who was sentenced to five years in prison on 30 counts of fraud, absconded to America and has been moving from state to state performing similar scams.
Baines, 47, of Hyde, Cheshire, ran the Mr Woodz furniture shop in The Plaza, Brunel Centre, in 2011 before the shop closed down, and he was convicted of cheating his customers out of more than £44,000.
He was last seen in the UK in January 2012, when he pleaded not guilty on all counts of fraud and was released on bail pending a trial to begin in the spring.
In April of that year he claimed he had been in a car accident in Cancun, Mexico, damaging his leg, and could not attend the trial, which went ahead in his absence in summer 2013.
But the Adver understands Baines had moved to Canada by this time, and was already operating a new scam, later skipping between states in the USA to avoid detection.
The damning body of evidence against Baines, who took on the alias of Chris Bartholomew, details how he would target well-off older women on dating websites and move in with them, scrounging off them while he ran fraudulent business deals.
He first appeared in Winnipeg, Canada, in early 2012, when he moved in with Kathleen Crang, a doctor who has written a number of medical books.
During this time he set up a fake online business named Pinewood Studios, offering high quality furniture using images ripped from real websites on advertising site Kijiji or through his blog rusticmaison.blogspot.com.
He would accept either cheques or transfers to a Paypal account, and develop excuses as to why delivery had stalled until payment protection of 45 days expired.
Paypal has since removed his account, and Winnipeg Police opened an investigation into his activity on December 4, 2012. But Baines had left the country in September after his victims set up a blog to compile evidence against him, leaving Kathleen $70,000 out of pocket.
He next appeared in Florida, when he moved to Sarasota, with a woman named Jodi Fusco. At this stage Mr Baines decided to change tactic, and advertised on Craigslist for a business partner in a company selling quality sports artwork.
His new approach would be to set up joint business ventures, keep any cash payments, and leave his victims to deal with the flood of demands for refunds.
Cindy Lockhart, 48, of Sarasota, Florida, saw the advert and took the opportunity, despite her reservations at the time.
“I met Chris via the businesses for sale section on Craigslist in the middle of February 2013,” she said.
“He was looking for a business partner, and I had spent the last year looking for a business to invest in.
“We met him a couple of times, and the profits he was claiming on the artwork were so substantial compared to our previous business. I checked how much the artwork could realistically sell for with companies in China and various other manufacturers.
“I finally agreed to put money into the business in exchange for a contract that would ensure a full refund should I not see a return on the profits.”
Baines signed the agreement with Cindy in March giving her 51 per cent control of the business, producing a passport in the name of Chris Bartholomew at the Bank of America, but asked to leave his name out of the documents because he was having trouble securing a visa.
“I was comfortable doing that because I knew that if at anytime I did not want to continue the business with Chris I would have no issue liquidating the company without his input,” Cindy added.
Over the next few months Cindy paid out $15,000 to get the business going ahead of two lucrative opportunities at motorsports shows around Florida in March.
But at the shows Baines would charge customers for future deliveries which never materialised, pocketing the cash and charging credit payments to the business account in Cindy’s name. She is still processing refunds to customers who came to her when they failed to get a response from Baines.
During this time Baines also ordered a service from a company called Framed Designs in Bradenton, Florida, for $2,000 to frame pieces for the next roadshow they would attend. He wrote them a cheque from a UK bank which bounced, and they were left at a loss.
Another victim, Ray Bartolo, 65, of Cape Coral, Florida answered an advert from Baines to retail some of the artwork he was presenting at the shows. Ray paid Mr Baines $3,500 for 1,000 pieces, but never received the prints.
After Cindy cut ties with Baines he attended the Motorsport Mitty show in Georgia between April 26 and 28, where he was already planning his next victim.
A coffee shop owner in a small town in Georgia, who does not wish to be identified, began a relationship with Baines after agreeing to sell his artwork from her store.
After stealing her credit card numbers and processing orders to her company, he robbed her of $8,000 and vanished after four months, leaving her to deal with the cascade of angry customers demanding refunds on products Baines did not deliver.
A charge to one of her credit cards on July 22 indicates Baines had gone to Texas by that time.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation has confirmed they are assisting in an active investigation into Chris Bartholomew.
Clive Read, financial investigator at the fraud office at Wiltshire Police, said: “We are aware Mr Baines is in America and we are currently putting together an international arrest warrant ahead of getting him extradited back to the UK.”
The Adver has passed all information on to Wiltshire Police.