Denise Neal worked at The Poynton in Takapuna between 2012 and 2014. She admitted four charges of burglary.
Denise Neal worked at The Poynton in Takapuna between 2012 and 2014. She admitted four charges of burglary. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Camera sting nabs carer

A RETIREMENT village set up an elaborate hidden-camera sting to catch one of its workers after residents complained that they had lost thousands of dollars.

The undercover trap caught out care worker Denise Neal, 51, who worked at The Poynton in Takapuna between 2012 and 2014 in a role of "utmost trust", on call for elderly residents during the night.

Court documents show retirement village bosses became suspicious when nearly $4000 went missing over 15 months from people who lived in the spacious, upmarket apartments. But there was no evidence as to the identity of the culprit.

At the end of July last year, managers turned to Scope Investigations, which set up several hidden cameras in the flats of absent residents.

In one room they even left two $10 bills under a fruit bowl to lure the thief.

Over a week, the footage caught Neal entering three of the apartments - using her master key - and snooping around, opening bags and checking diaries.

She often used a torch or the light from her cellphone so as not to cause alarm. The covert cameras even filmed her putting on blue plastic gloves while she scoured the rooms.

And she did not miss the $20 bait, which she was shown scooping up and putting in her pocket.

Residents have to fill in a form to tell staff when they will be away in case they have to be accounted for during emergency evacuations. But Neal used them to target her victims.

One woman, who had indicated she was going away, made a last-minute decision to stay home because of ill health and was sitting in her lounge when Neal walked in unannounced late one night.

She reported that Neal became flustered when confronted and the resident later found that $175 left to put her dog in a kennel was missing.

The camera footage was reviewed and Neal was sacked immediately. She admitted her guilt to the police.

"She stated, however, that that was the only time she took any money and she was not involved in any of the previous amounts of money going missing," according to the police summary of facts.

Neal subsequently admitted four charges of burglary and was sentenced in North Shore District Court to 10 months' home detention.

Judge Pippa Sinclair also ordered her to repay the resident her $175 as well as $600 for emotional harm, but she declined reparation for Metlifecare, which owns The Poynton.

The company spent $6800 on the CCTV sting to catch the defendant but the judge ruled against Neal picking up the tab.

Metlifecare chief executive Alan Edwards described the incident as "extremely disappointing".

"The safety and trust of our residents is held in the highest regard and we will always endeavour to take appropriate measures to ensure they feel safe in our villages," he said.

Judge Sinclair said the offending appeared to have been driven by a gambling habit but Neal had since expressed "remorse and extreme guilt".

There was still a stern message for the Papakura resident.

"By breaking into people's homes and going through and taking people's possessions, you seriously violate people's rights to feel safe and secure in their own home," Judge Sinclair said.

"The most aggravating feature relating to your offending was the breach of trust."

The judge said the victims felt "betrayed" and it had taken them a long time to rebuild their trust in staff at the retirement village.

Retirement Villages Association president Graham Wilkinson said he had not heard of a situation like it in 20 years but aged-care facilities could only do their best when it came to security.

"You can have the most robust policy you like but if someone's determined to do something like that there's not much you can do about it."

Mr Wilkinson said CCTV and swipe cards were becoming much more common in the industry and elderly folk were much safer in homes than living alone in the community.

NZ Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace agreed, but said "one case like this is one case too many".

Neal was also ordered to attend drug and gambling counselling for six months after the end of her home detention sentence.

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