A gambling addict who stole more than 1,000 luxury teddy bears from her boss to sell at knockdown prices online wept as she was jailed for 12 months.
Lisa Noriega, 51, looted the collection of rare Charlie Bears – which can cost around £100 each – while working at a crafts centre and sold the items on eBay using her estranged husband’s account.
By the time staff at the Cheshire Bear Company, based near Nantwich, discovered the thefts, more than £100,000 worth of collectible toys had gone missing.
The losses, which included a Star Wars bear range, were so severe that the firm’s boss Jon Richards – who went without a salary himself for a year while keeping Noriega on full pay – had to close one of its branches.
Noriega of Tamworth, Staffordshire, claimed she had become hooked on online gambling after Covid restrictions prevented her from visiting her daughter at university.
Sentencing her at Chester Crown Court on Friday morning, Judge Alistair MacDonald told Noriega: ‘You must have known your actions caused serious harm to your boss and your other three employees.
‘Mr Richards chose to trust you and keep you off furlough with full pay throughout the lockdown and this is how you repay him.
‘You used your husband’s account to sell on these bears, and for what? Simply to get a cheap thrill of gambling via online websites – not even for anything of worth or real value.’
Lisa Noriega, 51, pictured outside Chester Crown Court, looted the collection of rare Charlie Bears which can cost around £100 each while working at the Cheshire Bear Company
A human-sized Charlie Bear offered for sale by the Cheshire Bear Company at Dagfields craft centre in Cheshire where Noriega worked
The Cheshire Bear Company at Dagfields craft centre in Cheshire. The firm was forced to close one of its other branches because of the losses
Noriega helped herself to the collection while single-handedly running a mail order operation for her boss at a time when other colleagues were on furlough.
The court heard she had worked for the company’s owner Mr Richards for 14 years and was employed at one of his other firms before joining Cheshire Bear in 2019.
Paul Wood, prosecuting, said: ‘When the pandemic hit, the defendant told Mr Richards that she couldn’t go on furlough pay and would like to work throughout.
‘She said that she could run the company’s mail order operation across their three branches. Mr Richards allowed this and she stayed on full pay while the three other employees were all on furlough.
‘During the 18 months that she was employed there, the defendant stole £101,670 worth of rare and limited run Charlie Bears from the company’s three locations, each of which she had full access to without oversight.’
‘One day, Mr Richards’ attention was bought to an eBay page that a fellow colleague found online.
‘The colleague asked him if he had seen that the page was selling the exact same bears that Mr Richards noticed had been missing from stock counts he had recently made. The items in question included a number of rare bears, like the Star Wars Charlie bears.’
‘Mr Richards believed that there was only one person that could have access to those rare bears – the defendant.
‘Soon after this realisation in August 2021, he asked the defendant if she recognised the eBay account that was selling the bears.
‘She said she did not recognise the account, but Mr Richards then asked her if she recognised the house that the account was linked to and showed her a picture of Google Street view. She said it was her husband’s house, although she in fact co-owns it.
‘Mr Richards asked her again if she ran the account at which point she fully admitted the theft.
‘She also admitted that she had been stealing postage and packaging goods to use when she sold the bears online.
‘When asked why she did it the defendant said that she had a gambling problem and that this problem led her to take these actions.’
‘She was not an accountant or a bookkeeper but there was quite a large element of trust placed on her.’
The court heard the thefts had a huge impact on the family-run company which had to survive on loans while Mr Richards himself had to forego a salary for more than a year.
He said his relationship has been under strain from the ordeal.
Noriega, above, was kept by the company on full pay during lockdown after she pleaded not to be furloughed, only to reward the firm by stealing over £100,000 worth of stock
Mr Richards and other colleagues had great trust in the defendant and her position meant she had access to all the stock available.
‘She knew what she was doing throughout the lockdown while her fellow employees were struggling,’ Mr Richards said.
‘The marketplace was now flooded by these rare and limited-run bears, which were sold below their normal price. This will undoubtedly hurt our business in the long run.’
Noriega had no previous convictions. Her lawyer Oliver King said: ‘We have to look at the difficult personal circumstances she was facing at the time.
‘Her long-term partner who she co-owned the home with had recently left her and her only daughter had just gone off to university.
‘This left her at home alone for long periods of time and the pandemic meant that she could not visit her daughter. This led to her becoming very lonely and isolated.
‘It was during this time that she discovered online gambling. She only started with small bets but over time it became habitual and a way of making her feel a little better about her situation.
‘Every win gave her a kick. However, the habit grew and she needed a way of funding it.
The court heard Noriega sought counselling from the Salvation Army and has signed up to the GameStop programme for gambling addicts
‘She was working at the Cheshire Bear company at the time and saw the theft as an opportunity to make some money by advertising and selling the bears she was responsible for.
‘Her actions were completely out of character, as evidenced by her age and corresponding lack of previous convictions.
‘She feels deeply ashamed and contrite about her actions. She told me that she even considered selling her house to pay back Mr Richards but couldn’t because she only part owned the property with her ex-husband.
Mr King added: ‘She has made an effort to get her life back on track. She sought counselling from the Salvation Army and has signed up to the GameStop programme in an effort to stem her gambling addiction. Her family also make an effort to stop her from going on the apps.
‘This lady has done all she can to make amends.’
In sentencing, Judge MacDonald added: ‘Theft from an employer is always a serious offence, even more so in your case considering the value of the amount you stole.’
He added: ‘This was not a momentary theft, this was a continuous pattern of constant theft over a period of 18 months and you could only carry it out because of the trust Mr Richards put in you. How is he now going to trust anyone else in the future?’