A LYING cheat who duped a succession of gay men out of about a quarter of a million pounds during a ten-year trail of deception has been jailed for four years.
Mark Bishop, from Cirencester, had told victims he was an Old Etonian from a wealthy family with a mansion and other property in the Cotswolds that he would one day inherit.
The 37-year-old conned men out of money by coming up with a series of hard luck stories about difficulty getting access to trust funds and other sources of income, Gloucester Crown Court heard.
Bishop’s decade of crime began with him stealing about £4,500 from vulnerable residents with learning difficulties at a care home in Kent where he was deputy manager in 2000, said Philip Warren, prosecuting.
From then on, he said, Bishop preyed on a series of men – many whom he met through the gay dating website Gaydar. He encountered others by walking on the seafront in Brighton.
“The offences cover a period of ten years and they involved a loss of just short of a third of a million pounds,” he said. “His general theme was to attach himself to a series of men, deceive them as to his prospects and status, sometimes using assumed names, and tell them tales of hardship and bereavement to help him relieve them of significant sums of money.
“He would move on from one to another and practice very similar deceptions.”
In October 2001 he “attached” himself to Ron Whitcomb who he took to a large country house and said it belonged to his family.
Mr Warren said that between 2001 and 2004, Bishop either stole or conned a total of £212,488 from Mr Whitcomb.
The defendant eventually moved on from Mr Whitcomb, who reported him to the Metropolitan Police in March 2005. Bishop was not, however, arrested for those offences until June this year – by which time he had conned a series of other men out of smaller sums, totalling £2,119, Mr Warren said.
In 2005 he stayed in a B&B and left without paying a £900 bill.
He was arrested for the offence and committed to Gloucester Crown Court for sentence in 2007.
But Bishop failed to turn up and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
He then committed all his further offences while he was on the run.
In total, said Mr Warren, Bishop had stolen, cheated and deceived victims out of £297,103. 42.
One Gloucestershire man told the Echo how he was taken in by Bishop’s web of lies.
The man, who is gay, said Bishop was using the pseudonym Tobias Osbourne when he encountered him online.
When they met in person nine months later, Bishop came across as a “charmer”.
He said: “I thought nothing of it when he asked me for £25 for a phone bill – and then another £25 because he needed to switch networks. It didn’t seem like much money and I never thought it would be a problem getting it back.
“Then he told me he was in the process of breaking up from his partner and needed somewhere to stay. So we stayed for about three weeks in a hotel, firstly in Burford and then in Cirencester. I ended up having to foot the entire bill because he said he was still sorting his finances out with his former partner.
“The whole thing was done on the basis that he was vulnerable.”
Eventually when the man told Bishop he was running out of cash, Bishop disappeared.
“When the money didn’t appear back in my account like he said it would, I knew something was wrong so I took his photo to the police,” he said. “They recognised him instantly and told me Tobias Osbourne wasn’t even his real name.
“I couldn’t believe it. Part of me didn’t want to believe it. You never think something like that will happen to you.
“I felt so gullible for having fallen for all his stories but he was very clever. I’m glad his actions have finally caught up with him. I don’t feel any sympathy for him but I don’t think prison will change him.
“The whole experience has left me scarred. I am far less trusting a person than when I first came across Tobias Osbourne.
“But I am sure there are lots of other people out there who, like me, feel stupid for having fallen for it. My advice to them would be to come out and contact police if this has happened to you.”
Bishop led a life of penthouse suites, five-star restaurants and designer clothing.
But behind the scenes he was preying on vulnerable gay men, duping them into parting with hundreds of thousands of pounds in order to fund a champagne lifestyle.
Whilst pretending to make important business calls related to his fictitious career as an architect, the 37-year-old was secretly grooming dozens of men on gay networking website Gaydar.
He trawled the length and breadth of the country, targeting up to half a dozen people at the same time, bombarding them with text messages and phone calls.
Nobody has called Bishop by his real name in years.
Instead he used a variety of aliases including, most recently, Jamie Hopegood, Toby Hughes, Jack Cadogan and Max Lane.
One of 10 children from a respectable family, he is known to have scored high grades while at school in Cirencester.
But apart from that next to nothing is known about the real Mark Bishop.
To the knowledge of police, Inland Revenue and Customs, and other authorities, he has never held down a proper job.
He has not used a bank account for years.
When police arrested him his only belongings were a laptop and a mobile phone – the tools of his sordid trade.
Dermot Clarke, defending, said his client wished to express his sincere sorrow and regret to all of the victims.
His family are all law-abiding and respectable people and are horrified by what he has done, he added.
Bishop had pleaded guilty to obtaining a money transfer for £45,000 from Mr Whitcomb by false representation that he would repay him; theft of £11,100 from him; obtaining a £40,000 money transfer from him by false representation and theft of £86,688.42 from him.
He also admitted three further offences of fraud “by using false details to portray an affluent lifestyle with a view to making gain”.
He asked for 24 other offences of fraud, deception and theft to be taken into consideration.
Bishop was jailed for four years and three months.
For PC Anita Barlow, Mark Bishop’s arrest marked the end of a four-year chase.
Working with forces across the country, she and her colleague PC Bev Smith worked tirelessly to untangle a web of deceit stretching back as far as 2001.
Bishop had dropped off the police radar after skipping a court appearance in 2007.
But when a Cheltenham man came into the station one day in June last year reporting he had been conned out of a large sum of money – the investigation was blown wide open.
Speaking to the Echo, PC Barlow said: “It was amazing really. On the surface the matter which was brought to us looked like a civil dispute between two people. But when we got hold of a photo of a man claiming to be Tobias Osbourne, straightaway we matched it up to one of Bishop we had on file.
“He had given false details to the victim so it now became a criminal matter. We started to scratch the surface and uncovered a whole trail of fraudulent activity. I have never dealt with anything like this in terms of scale.”
PC Barlow was able to make contact with Bishop via his mobile phone and tried to persuade him to hand himself in. She told him if he didn’t, he could appear on Crimewatch. They set up a meeting, but Bishop didn’t show. Not about the give up, she called Bishop’s known victims to try to pick up the trail. She told them to carry on as normal but to get in touch if the conman resurfaced.
Finally the breakthrough came in June this year when she got a call from a man living in Pershore, saying Bishop was on his way over.
When he arrived, she was waiting on the doorstep ready to make the arrest.
PC Barlow said: “One of the things which has made it hard to trace him is that he has never had any bank accounts. He just kept the money on him as far as we know.
“We believe he has been doing this for a long, long time. We don’t believe he has ever had a job. He has never claimed any benefits or paid tax.
“This means he could have been living from this kind of activity for 10 years or more.
“When we trace back his known activity there are large gaps when we don’t know what he was doing or who he was with. It seems highly likely there are other victims out there who haven’t yet come forward. We are very keen to hear from anyone who can shed any light on his movements during that time.
“When we arrested Bishop one of the things he said to us was he was relieved because he didn’t know who he was anymore – he had told that many lies.
“But he hasn’t shown any remorse for his victims.”