In what could be the ultimate moral tale about living in the cash economy, a Sydney family has won judgment against a neighbour who exploited their intellectually disabled son and stole about half a million dollars of life savings from their roof cavity.
The extraordinary civil case in the NSW Supreme Court in Australia was brought by the Helous, a devout Muslim family, after the NSW police declined to lay charges, citing insufficient evidence.
The Helou family had only handwritten tallies about the amount of money stashed in their roof, and the only person who had seen Thai Giam Nguyen, a fruit shop owner, take some of the money was their intellectually disabled son Walid.
But the Helous were convinced Nguyen was the culprit. They became all the more convinced as months went by and Nguyen went on a spending spree that included buying properties and renovating his house.
Last week, with the help of their lawyers, Paltos Briggs, the Helous convinced Justice Lindsay that on the balance of probabilities, Nguyen was the man who had stolen their life savings.
In painstaking detail, they forensically tracked Nguyen's finances - the new bank accounts he opened and the efforts he made to avoid scrutiny as he deposited the cash.
The judge also heard evidence from Walid and a neighbour, who said he had seen Nguyen enter the townhouse in the southwestern Sydney suburb of Bankstown carrying a ladder.
The Helous had chosen to keep their cash in the roof to avoid breaching the proscriptions in the Koran against earning or charging interest. Nekou Helou, the father, was extremely strict. The five adult children lived at home in an arrangement the judge described as ''grounded in the younger generation's veneration for the parents''.
The children contributed their wages towards the family savings. At first they kept their money in the bank but after making the Haj in 1998, Helou senior became even more staunchly religious.
''In the year 1999, 2000 he became so strict he didn't want any money at all in the bank,'' his son Mohammed, a chiropractor, said during the case.
His sister Suzanne diverted their interest earnings to a charity that helped orphans, believing this would meet the requirements of Islam. But this did not placate Helou senior.
Mohammed recalled his father saying: '''Son, I will not live in a house which has money accumulated from interest in it.' I tried to reason with him but he is a dominating and controlling person.''
From 2000 they put money under floorboards and behind a kickboard, and then opted for the roof cavity to keep their $467,500 (NZ$507,000) in cash along with the family jewellery.
Walid became aware of ''the family secret'' and told his ''best friend,'' Nguyen. Justice Lindsay found on or about March 27, 2006, Nguyen, using Walid's key, entered the house with a ladder and stole the money.
The judge said he did not accept the defendant's contention the cash did not exist. Nor did he accept Nguyen's explanation he, too, had been hoarding cash under the mattress of his bed.
''Payments for the acquisition of property apparently funded through a bank, appear on close examination to have been sourced from Nguyen's amorphous, unverifiable reservoir of cash,'' he said.
He also found that an undocumented loan from a Mr Truong for A$74,000 (NZ$80k) was ''not credible''.
''The conduct of the plaintiffs, in their management of cash, may be condemned as imprudent, eccentric or economically irrational... Misguided they may have been; dishonest and greedy they were not,'' Justice Lindsay said.
''The same cannot be said for Mr Nguyen. An opportunity for gain, at the expense of the Helou family, presented itself to him courtesy of Walid's simple dependency upon him... and the improbability of anybody believing that they had a small fortune in cash held, at home, without security.''
Nguyen has been ordered to repay the A$467,500 (NZ$507,000). An equitable charge representing the amount that can be traced to the property investments has been placed on the title of Nguyen's property. He has 28 days to appeal.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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