As the self-styled “captain” of his very own mock German U-boat, Richard Williams has always been an eccentric.
Dressed in naval regalia, he became a familiar face to many during the months that the customised canal barge – and floating visitor attraction – was moored at Clarence Dock close to the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds.
The self-confessed maritime history nut admitted to indulging in a boyhood fantasy by spending £50,000 kitting out the vessel, which he named U-8047, with naval artefacts, a periscope and dummy torpedoes.
But the 56-year-old could now be facing prison after confessing to defrauding the taxman of more than £1million.
An investigation by HM Revenue and Customs dating back to 2012 found Williams and his former partner Laurel Howarth had set up a number of companies in Lancashire which ostensibly sold equipment for the disabled.
Evidence gathered by investigators showed no or minimal genuine sales actually took place but the pair filed more than £1m in false invoices and VAT returns.
Their attempts to extort money from the public purse were brazen, and the pair went to great lengths to try and cover their tracks.”Sandra Smith, HMRC
Both Williams, of Redcar Road, Blackpool, and 28-year-old Howarth, formerly of the same address, hijacked the identities of friends and associates to try to hide the fraud.
Williams has pleaded guilty to three counts of cheating the public revenue and one of having an article used for fraud.
Howarth has pleaded guilty to three counts of furnishing false returns.
The pair were due to be sentenced on Friday and appeared side by side in the dock at Manchester Crown Court.
Williams, who was likened by many to advertising icon Captain Birdseye because of his beard, portly build and uniform, was clean-shaven, casually dressed and in poor health.
Both he and Howarth spoke only to confirm their names before a discussion was held about how the case should proceed.
Prosecutor Richard Orme, who described Williams as “a genuine eccentric”, told the court a pre-sentence report on the defendant should have been prepared but was not ready.
Judge Michael Henshall heard that Howarth’s defence team wanted her to be sentenced as soon as possible because she had suffered “massive mental health strain” because of the case.
But he ruled the pair should be sentenced together and adjourned the case until April 9.
Sandra Smith, assistant director of criminal investigation at HMRC, said: “Williams and Howarth thought they were off the radar of HMRC’s investigators. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Their attempts to extort money from the public purse were brazen, and the pair went to great lengths to try and cover their tracks.”