London - British police fear a South African pastor has fled back home after failing to turn up at court following his conviction for a massive R45 million fraud.
South Africans Bruce Scott, 50, and his wife Belinda, 43, who are originally from Joburg, were convicted in November on 11 counts of defrauding individuals and companies in the UK.
The fraud was carried out on friends, business associates and people connected to his self-styled church, the Covenant Church of the Cross, which he held at a Methodist chapel in the small village of Farnham Common in Buckinghamshire.
Bruce was convicted of 10 counts of fraud and deception, while Belinda was convicted of one count of fraud by false representation.
Both were released on bail at Reading Crown Court to return for sentencing on January 10, when Bruce was warned he would face prison.
Belinda attended and was handed a one-year conditional discharge. However, Bruce failed to turn up with his wife, who said the last time she saw him was that morning when he left for work.
He was last seen six days later driving his car on a main road towards the Buckinghamshire town of Beaconsfield.
Detective Superintendent David Poole, at Thames Valley Police, said: “Thames Valley Police Economic Crime Unit has conducted a thorough investigation leading to convictions of Mr and Mrs Scott after a trial. A significant breach of trust has led to large sums being stolen from members of our community, which is unacceptable.
“Mr Scott has now absconded before his sentencing, and I appeal for any information which could lead to his location so that he can be arrested and brought to justice.”
Although the couple’s passports were confiscated, it is unclear whether they had British and South African ones, and whether both sets were taken by court officials.
Police declined to speculate about Bruce’s whereabouts, but sources said there was a good chance he had “returned to his homeland”.
A police spokeswoman would not say whether officers had alerted the South African police or if they would contact Interpol.
Belinda has remained at the couple’s house in High Wycombe.
In total, nine people handed over a total of R4.5m between 1998 and 2012, with Bruce failing to repay the cash despite various pledges. One unnamed woman in South Africa handed over R742 000 and lost her home as a result.
November’s trial, in which keen chef Bruce was described as a “forceful” husband, was told the pastor also failed to pay a R815 000 rent bill; R1.1m to a church friend as part of a restaurant venture; another R742 000 to a friend; R851 000 to three other people; and R101 000 to a pensioner.
Among other debts was R181 000 in private school fees for their four children, then aged 7 to 19. The couple had 15 bank accounts between them.
The couple set up their Church of the Cross as a limited company in 2006, then later changed it to the Covenant Church of the Cross and dropped the limited element. It was dissolved in 2012.
Over the past decade, they had been involved in a number of start-up companies.
Independent Foreign Service