Going down to the bottom with a fist full of lies

It has been quite a while since I have rebooted one of my newspaper investigations. So here is one exclusive I still treasure. It involves a convicted fraudster called Alex Lothian. I first met Mr Lothian – and was taken in by – while Chief Reporter at the Galloway Gazette in early 1994. I followed him while at The Scotsman and his final comeuppance came in Cupar Sheriff Court in May 1995, while I was working for The Herald. Guys like these – and I have come across far too many of them – are leeches on society.


A FRAUDSTER whose most recent deal was to front a £35 million heritage project was convicted yesterday in a case involving £1,700.

Alex Lothian, 44, of Newgrange Park, Pittenweem, was ordered by Sheriff Charles Smith at Cupar to do 250 hours of community service.

Afterwards, Lothian said he was a ”ruined man” and he would never work again.

He was originally indicted on two separate charges. The first alleged attempted fraud of £280,000 and obtaining £15,000 in connection with the failed Litetronics Lamps business in Anstruther during 1991 and 1992. The second charge was of fraudulently obtaining £1,716.02 from a Stranraer deer farmer, James Baxter.

His trial began on May 2 and was set to last at least three weeks. However, three days into proceedings, after only two witnesses were called, the fiscal, Alan Kempton, offered an amendment to the charges.

In return for dismissing the first charges, Lothian pled guilty to the fraud against Mr Baxter and financial consultant Douglas McIntyre and farming consultant Alastair Gray.

He admitted defrauding Mr Baxter of £1,716.02 by pretending he was acting on behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry.

His QC, Edward Targowski, yesterday pled for his client to be spared a custodial sentence to allow him to care for his 82-year-old invalid mother.

However, Sheriff Smith, noting that Lothian already had a criminal record for fraud, said: ”It is obvious that you have returned to your bad ways. Your offence was deliberate and involved stealing. You seem to have ideas beyond your abilities and those who are unfortunate to become involved in your projects become the victims.

”No doubt a custodial sentence is appropriate for you,” he said, adding that it was a ”narrow decision” to impose 240 hours of community service to indicate the gravity of the offence.

In the summer of 1992, Mr Baxter was struggling to maintain his deer farm at Leswalt, near Stranraer, and decided to investigate plans to diversify.

He was introduced to Lothian as a business consultant but Lothian falsely claimed to be a licensed credit broker and DTI adviser.

Mr Baxter was soon convinced that the Fife consultant could help him. Lothian increased his credibility when he introduced an innocent party, Alastair Gray, who he claimed was a deer farming expert.

On August 5, 1992, Mr Baxter received written proposals for his farm’s redevelopment and details of DTI assistance and Government loans.

The sting was attached to the end of the document: ”The charges for consultancy services will be on the basis of £25 per hour exclusive of VAT and do not include expenses for any travel, telephone, postage, facsimile or typing charges which will be billed at cost.” The first £1,000 had to be delivered upfront.

Mr Baxter was instructed to hand over a £500 deposit ”made payable to Alex Lothian”.

More than a week later, Lothian presented his scheme to develop the farm into a profitable deer park and visitor centre. The plans included a tree-top walkway, an activity wood, restaurant, gift shop, and exhibition area.

Two days after Mr Baxter paid his deposit and a further £500 ”to set up the consultancy contract”, a bill for £504 arrived from Lothian for the first 16 hours of Mr Gray’s consultancy time.

Further bills, varying from £3.53 for a business lunch to £212 for VAT, were soon dropping through the letter-box. However, as a request for a further £1,000 of consultancy work arrived, Mr Douglas McIntyre of St Monance — who was innocently involved in the Frances mine project as Lothian’s financial adviser — had been tipped off about Lothian’s activities and in turn warned Mr Baxter.

His warning came as Lothian — now gaining new confidence — uprated his consultancy fees to £50 per hour.

”It was only a bit of nifty footwork in stopping cheques so quickly that he only managed to get £1,001 from me,” observed Mr Baxter. ”I saved £700 and could have lost a lot more.

”He was a cracking good con-man. All sort of suckers get taken in by Alex Lothian. Thank God he has now got his come-uppance. It may stop him repeating his routine again.”

Soon after defrauding Mr Baxter, Lothian became involved in a bogus £35 million heritage project to restore the derelict house and grounds of Barnbarroch, 20 miles away near Wigtown.

The brains behind the project — Andrew McCulloch, 59, a solicitor and property developer — was jailed two months ago for defrauding the Royal Bank of Scotland out of £300,000 in a gamble to keep other business interests afloat.

Last October, Lothian was forced to resign as consultant to the project, as he faced fraud charges involving his activities in Stranraer and Anstruther.

In 1993, while attending a business course in Newton Stewart and with the help of a public grant of £2,400, McCulloch developed a scheme for a cultural theme park similar to the Landmark Centre near Aviemore.

McCulloch was introduced to Lothian, who also saw the opportunity to cash in on Scottish interest in its cultural history.

By October, Lothian had launched a £20 million development plan for Barnbarroch House and its 3,500 acres.

He claimed the scheme would create more than 200 jobs and was supported by a project consortium including merchant banks and conglomorate companies. The funding and backers did not exist.

The project, he said, would include a nature reserve, historical and cultural centre, theatre, museum, butterfly farm, forest walkway, leisure centre, shops, restaurant, and 300 holiday chalets; and would attract one million visitors a year to economically depressed Wigtownshire.

Despite the hype, nothing happened for six months and the regional council’s planning department closed its file on the development.

In May 1994, Lothian admitted he and McCulloch had parted company.

Lothian told the press: ”Too late we discovered that Mr McCulloch did not have his own funding to go ahead.”

He said a new scheme was under way involving a £23 million trust status development of Barnbarroch as a national museum and educational centre with residential accommodation provided by 200 Norwegian chalets.

Another four months passed before a second relaunch of the Barnbarroch scheme was undertaken with uprated costings of £35 million.

Lothian claimed that more than 25,000 people had already joined the trust, each subscribing £30 a year to the scheme and between £2 million and £3 million had been raised. Investigations by The Herald discovered that no such membership or level of investment existed.

Within a few days of the relaunch, Lothian appeared at Cupar Sheriff Court on charges involving fraud.

Last night, Lothian told the Herald: ”I am happy to admit I have made mistakes. But I am a ruined man because of this conviction, press reports, and the way the police have warned people against me.

”One thing’s for certain. I’ll never work again.”

You’ve got a lot of nerve

Let me introduce you to Steven Houston, or Steve as he likes to be called. Steve is the sort of guy you really don’t want to meet and certainly not trust with your money or possessions. He is a conman.
Six years ago a dear friend of mine was duped by him for over £1,200 plus personal items including a Laptop, half a freezer of her home produced lamb and two expensive sheep skins.
What follows is a piece I wrote for my newspaper in December 2008, but was never allowed to publish. I was told by an inexperienced boss that the story was ‘unsafe’.
That didn’t stop either the Scottish national The Sunday Mail or the Macclesfield Express from publishing it the following week. So this reload has been a long time coming!

A TOP brass RAF officer who stood side by side with veterans at a Remembrance Day service in Wrexham last month is an imposter with a long string of similar deceptions.
Self-proclaimed Air Commodore Steven Houston, 49, donned a UN blue beret, and badges which suggested he served in Afghanistan, and read the service and took the salute at the Remembrance Service in Coedpoeth on Sunday 10 November.
He also lay a poppy wreath with a UN logo at the village’s war memorial.
But, Houston is a confidence trickster who has been sacked from a number of positions in the catering industry and quit a similar job at Chester Zoo just prior to the service.
Houston, who has a home address in West Yorkshire, had been staying in lodgings in Coedpoeth during October and November, where he conned his landlady out of more than £1,200.
A year ago he was sacked as general manager of the Moorpark House Hotel in Kilbirnie, Ayshire in Scotland.
Scottish veterans were suspicious when he turned up to take the salute at the war memorial in Stevenston on Sunday 11 November, 2007. A year earlier he had pulled the same trick at his home village of South Kirkby.
Houston’s phoney medals at Stevenston, South Kirkby and Coedpoeth included the V-shaped Legion badge commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
He also sported a little enamel wing on his jacket, but the proper RAF emblem is an eagle with a crown.
Houston wore a UN beret with a cloth badge worn by officers. He also sported an ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) badge suggesting he had served with NATO in Afghanistan.
Houston bragged openly that he had served in the Falklands, both Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and Bosnia and claimed he was also part of an elite group who accompanied Princess Diana’s body back from Paris in 1997.
He even handed out bogus business cards with a UN logo and his fake rank of Air Commodore upon them.
But Houston only served a short stint in the RAF in the 1980s and never progressed beyond the ordinary ranks in the catering corps.
Ian Evans, landlord of the Golden Lion in Coedpoeth and a former soldier with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, said a dozen ex-servicemen accompanied Houston back to his pub for “a few drinks” following this year’s service.
“He wasted no time in boasting about who he was, what he’d done and where he’d been, even before we had our first drink,” said Ian.
“But we immediately became suspicious and started asking him questions he could not answer and then we realised he was an imposter.
“It is an absolute disgrace that someone like him can impersonate a senior officer when we are remembering so many genuine servicemen who lost their lives.”
Sean Griffiths, a former Regimental Sergeant Major with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was also at the Remembrance Service.
“I didn’t speak with him, but knew he wasn’t ex RAF immediately when I saw the condition of his shoes,” he said.
“The RAF are notoriously well groomed and this guy wasn’t, he was like a tramp.
“I am disgusted he conned the British Legion in this way.”
Mark Edmonds, landlord of the New Inn in Coedpoeth, said Houston befriended him and his regulars for the six weeks he lived near the village.
“On the surface he was a nice chap, but we soon saw through him and underneath he was a deceitful, conniving and scheming man. He even started paying his tab with meat and sheep skins he had stolen from his landlady,” he said. “He needs sorting out and stopping.”
Back in his home village Eddie Robinson, president of the South Kirkby British Legion, said: “I didn’t know he was an imposter until last week. It was quite a shock because he seemed very genuine. He has been into the club since playing pool. He said he had been away on UN business.”
The RAF confirmed that following an investigation, no-one by the name of Steven Houston had ever reached Air Commodore or any similar rank.
A spokeswoman for the UN also confirmed that Houston has no right to wear the uniform or a blue officer’s beret, and that impersonating a UN officer is a serious criminal offence.
A spokesman for the British Legion said: “He is an imposter and his sheer presence at Remembrance services throughout the UK is an insult to all those who gave their lives for us and who we remember.”
When door-stepped at his home by a reporter, a man in dressing gown answered, looked away and said: “Mr Houston doesn’t live here,” before slamming the door closed.