A ROGUE trader from Ellesmere Port who conned dozens of residents out of tens of thousands of pounds has been spared immediate custody.

Michael Aston, 32, of Pooltown Road, continued to seek new customers for his MA Gardening business, even when he had a long backlog of half-finished work, leaving some gardens in a mess, Chester Crown Court heard on Monday, September 14.

When customers complained via social media or through Trading Standards, Aston would then be intimidating and threatening to them, prosecutor Sarah Morgan told the court.

In total, there were 26 complainants who had been conned out of more than £40,000 between January 2017 and October 2018.

Judge Nicholas Woodward handed Aston, who had earlier pleaded guilty to running a fraudulent business, a 10-month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and ordered him to carry out 200 hours unpaid work.

He must pay £7,000 compensation to his victims on a pro-rata basis over the next two years, with the judge adding the victims could seek out further compensation through the civil court.

Prosecuting, Ms Morgan said Aston had advertised his landscape gardening business, MA Gardening, on the Pride in the Port Facebook page in 2017.

He was quick to respond to messages and arrange face-to-face consultations, with payments arranged in three instalments - an initial deposit, a second payment when the work was half-finished and a final payment when the work was done.

But the work would not be completed and Aston would not only demand second instalments long before the work was even halfway completed, but he would add to his workload by gathering more quotes.

The court heard Aston would provide a catalogue of excuses as to why the work had not been completed.

Defending, Dafydd Roberts said some of the excuses, which included family bereavements and the theft of his van, were genuine.

But he accepted they should not have prevented work from being carried out for many weeks.

Several victims requested refunds, but would not receive the money.

When one of the victims posted about their experience on their Facebook page, urging people not to use the business, Aston messaged them, initially sounding "desperate" and telling them to delete the post, but then "threatening and intimidating", saying he was going to call the police on them, adding: "If anything happens to my house, I will be coming for you".

When initially interviewed about the offences in March 2018, Aston said he had made arrangements to refund four of the customers and accepted there had been breakdowns, but would now do one job at a time.

However, Aston continued to run the business as before and customers continued to complain.

In May 2019, Aston was reinterviewed and he accepted matters had "spiralled out of control", and had continued to accept work to keep the business going.

Aston had been made bankrupt personally in October 2018, and the business had ceased trading.

Seven of the 26 victims had given victim impact statements.

One had found the experience "very distressing" and had caused "stress and anxiety", and by contacting Trading Standards, had been made to feel by Aston they were the ones in the wrong.

Another had had to cancel family plans as a result of the stress and expense involved, while another had called the process "exhausting" and said Aston had undermined the reputation of tradespeople overall through his actions.

A fourth victim had received a number of "nasty" messages and did not believe Aston was sorry for what he had done, only sorry that he was caught.

One of the victims had to cut short their own maternity leave as the added expense to fix Aston's unfinished work meant she ran short of money.

Another said their garden was in "a large mess" with two "dangerous pits".

In total, Aston had charged his victims over £58k for the botched jobs, of which the victims had paid about £40k.

He had one previous conviction in 2001 for a dissimilar offence, for which he received a conditional discharge.

Defending, Mr Roberts said MA Gardening had been set up in 2012 and had not been a fraudulent business, but one which had been successful - many of Aston's victims were repeat customers.

However, the business partner had left the company in 2016 and Aston had "struggled to cope" with the business since then.

Aston's personal bankruptcy had come to an end and he was in a position to pay out compensation at a rate of £300 per month, having found new employment.

His employer had written a letter of reference to the court and said if Aston was jailed, it would be "a sad blow" to his business.

Aston had also been punished "via the local community", and had suffered threats to his local property.

Judge Woodward said Aston had "duped members of the public" into believing he was a reputable and reliable tradesman, taking substantial deposits for landscape gardening work, but was "fully aware there was a significant risk" the work would not be completed.

He told Aston: "Victims were not only upset by the stress and anxiety by your failing to perform your end of the bargain, but you began to threaten them."

But he added: "I do accept there is another side to this picture. The business was not fraudulent from the outset. I accept the assessment made by the probation service that you are a low risk of further reoffending. You expressed remorse which is considered to be genuine."