A sub postmaster who stole from his own office to service mounting debts was spared prison after he was freed on a suspended sentence.
Antrim Crown Court Judge Desmond Marrinan told the 39-year-old father of three what while he deserved to go to jail, justice sometimes had to be tempered with mercy.
Lee Williamson, from Oldwood Road, Randalstown, who ran Portstewart Post Office, was freed on an 18-month term, suspended for three years.
He pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation, fraud by abuse of position, theft and four counts of forgery.
Judge Marrinan told Williamson: “I am sure you realise that this type of offence traditionally leads to a custodial sentence. You were in a position of trust; that trust was abused in a very obvious and serious way.
“This seems to be wholly out of character; you must have been at a very low ebb. I can only conclude that you perceived yourself to have no other option but to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
However, he added: “I have come to the view that while a custodial sentence is clearly called for, justice sometimes has to be tempered with mercy.
“It was a desperate attempt to meet a shortfall which you considered overwhelming. This is a very sad and unusual case.”
Earlier prosecution lawyer, Roseanne McCormick revealed that Williamson’s family has since repaid almost all of the monies he had had taken, which came to light following an audit at the branch on May 22, 2012 which showed a £16,087 cash shortfall and £129 stock shortage.
Miss McCormick said the post office was alerted by Land and Property Services. Later auditors found four cheques in a secure area of the post office, with a total value of £15,984, from cheque books which had not been delivered to account holders.
When confronted, Williamson admitted he was in financial difficulties and had used post office cash to pay personal bills including a tax demand. He said he had forged cheques after discovering several cheque books in a batch of “misdelivered” mail.
Defence lawyer Chris Sherrard said his client had ended up in “significant” debt after having to take time off work on health grounds, adding: “He was in an escalating crisis and had to meet a £5,000 tax bill as well as other bills; he wasn’t thinking straight at the time.’
Mr Sherrard added that Williamson had psychological problems and had been suffering from anxiety and depression but not sought help for his mental health problems.
“He had difficulty in dealing with staff and was shying away from his responsibility. He had tried to sell his business but it had fallen through and was in negative equity. His business was in debt to the tune of £65,000; another sub postmaster is now running the premises.”
The court also heard that Williamson had not been leading an extravagant lifestyle but had been “trying to buy time to juggle difficult financial circumstances.”
The vast majority of his ill-gotten gains had been repaid and Williamson had now “lost everything of material value”, added Mr Sherrard.