‘She groomed me’: business owner opens up on $35k theft
GINA Oberle first crossed paths with Felicity Ann Evans several years ago across a wash basin in a small town hair salon.
Little did the single mother know at the time, Evans would one day become a client she would desperately wish she'd never met.
Evans was ordered to make full restitution and pay $35,000 back to Ms Oberle in Murgon Magistrates Court last week, marking the end a four year legal and emotional ordeal for the single mother and small business owner.
"When I first discovered my business account was nearly completely empty it felt like all the air had been sucked out of me. I was in a state of total shock and confusion. I could barely speak," Ms Oberle said.
"All I could do was slump to the ground and try to make sense of the whole situation."
The court heard Evans began stealing from the Murgon hairdresser back in March 2013 and continued to steadily drain her business account right up until January 2016.
Evans stole amounts ranging from between $20 and $5500 from Ms Oberle's business account in 153 transactions over a three-year period.
"I first met Felicity while working at another hair salon in Murgon," Ms Oberle said.
"After a short while of knowing her she convinced me to open up my own salon and told me she would be able to act as my business consultant and personal accountant and in return I could do her hair for free."
Not only did Evans fail to complete a number of the business tasks the pair originally agreed to, she would turn up on a regular basis to have her hair done, as well as her children and mother's hair too - all at Ms Oberle's expense.
"She helped me open an account with Westpac in Kingaroy and encouraged me to switch over to using her accountant and was always very controlling when it came to discussing business matters with anyone other than her.
"Looking back now I can see how she was grooming me the entire time, right from the moment we met."
Ms Oberle said her salon, OriGINAl hair by GINA soon took off and she was filling her books with appointments from the minute the business opened.
"Business was doing well, at the end of every week I would take all my cash and eftpos takings down to the local Westpac here in Murgon to be deposited. I never in a million years thought something fishy was going on.
"It wasn't until I went to book a holiday to Japan I discovered the account was almost completely drained of funds.
"I panicked. I thought maybe somehow someone had hacked into it and taken all the money, I didn't initially think it could be someone I knew."
Ms Oberle arranged a meeting with Evans and the reality of how the funds had been siphoned out of her account quickly came to light.
"I discovered she'd been stealing from me the entire time.
"Against my knowledge she'd arranged to be one of the signatories to the bank account and she had also been receiving the bank statements the entire time.
"When I started the business up I didn't have a laptop or access to a computer so I could be checking internet banking, I never thought anyone else had full access to the account.
"I didn't know how tightly she had me wrapped around her finger."
Ms Oberle said now that everything has come to light and the battle through the courts is finally over, she's ready to just move on with her life and her salon.
"I've since completed some business courses and my qualifications to teach hairdressing at TAFE and I have a much better understanding of the ins and outs of the financial sides to owning a small business, not to mention legal procedures," she said.
"I would strongly encourage other small business owners to be more aware of every facet of their business, no matter how small it is when you start out.
"Ask lots of questions, reach out to experts and friends who have financial or banking backgrounds and don't sign off on anything without having a thorough understanding of all the small print and strings attached.
"I was determined not to let this go, I am not the sort of person to just lie down and take the pitiful out-of-court settlement money they were offering me. I wanted to see this brought to court and for the community to see this woman for who she is.
"I just hope my experience will serve as a warning to others to be more careful and aware of the sort of people who are out there who will seek to take advantage of small business owners."
Ms Oberle said through the entire experience she was extremely lucky to have the support of friends, family and clients.
"My community have been nothing short of incredible and I don't think I could have gotten through this entire ordeal without them.
"This whole process really destroyed my faith and trust in people and made me withdraw from my friends, family and community but I'm ready to move on from this terrible experience as a stronger person.
"I'm excited for what the future holds."
Evans was sentenced in the Murgon Magistrates Court to two years' imprisonment, wholly suspended with a clear warning if she reoffended or committed another offence punishable by imprisonment in the next two years she would be facing time behind bars.
She was also ordered to pay the full amount of $35,000 back to Ms Oberle in order to avoid actual jail time.
Her conviction was recorded.