A man who tried to cheat a humanitarian medical charity out of a multi-million pound legacy by faking a relative’s will has been jailed for two years.
Paul Coppola, from Edinburgh, received a payout from his second cousin’s estate and property and stood to benefit further at the expense of Medecins Sans Frontieres.
But when police were called in he admitted forging the deceased man’s signature and said he did not agree that the residue should be left to the charity.
A sheriff told Coppola: “You did stand to gain a vast amount of money at the expense of a well-known charity.”
Sheriff Frank Crowe said: “You actions caused much grief, inconvenience and disappointment to the other legatees and your friends and uncertainty to the tenants of properties which were rented from the deceased.” The sheriff told Coppola he would have faced a three year jail sentence if he had been convicted after trial, but it would be reduced in view of his early guilty plea.
Edinburgh Sheriff Court heard that Coppola had known his second cousin, Desiderio Coppola, all his life and they had a close relationship with Coppola referring to him as an uncle.
Mr Coppola had signed a will in July 2010 appointing a friend, Christopher Ferrard, and his solicitor to act as his executors in the event of his death.
The will bequeathed various amounts among friends and family, including a £100,000 legacy to Coppola.
It also gave instructions that tenants of business premises were to be offered a reasonable chance to purchase those premises and left the residue of his estate to Medicins Sans Frontieres which provides medical aid in war torn regions and developing countries.
But the court heard that in October the following year, just days before Mr Coppola’s death, a new “will” appeared which purported to bear his signature.
It appointed Mr Ferrard and Coppola to act as executors and altered bequests to friends and family and removed one person completely from the will.
It made no reference to business premises and instructed that the remainder of the estate be paid to Coppola, of Waverley Park Terrace, Edinburgh, cutting out the charity completely.
Fiscal Ann MacNeill earlier told the court that when Mr Coppola died in 2011 his estate was valued at approximately £7 million.
She said Mr Ferrard had attended at the deceased’s address where some family and friends had gathered and Coppola handed him a copy of the new “will”, but he was suspicious of it.
The following day Coppola called a goddaughter of the deceased, Elvira Fearn, to tell her about the content of the faked document.
The fiscal said: “Although she had no knowledge of the wills or the deceased’s intentions, she was suspicious of the will because she was aware that the deceased hated to pay tax and she did not believe that he would have omitted Medecins Sans Frontieres completely and left the residue to the accused as there would have been a large tax liability to pay.”
“Elvira Fearn was of the opinion that the changes to the will reflected the accused’s allegiances rather than the wishes of the deceased,” she said.
Other beneficiaries were contacted by Mr Ferrard and expressed surprise at the terms of the will.
Several days after the death friends and family held a meeting with Coppola, who had provided care and companionship to the dead man in the later stages of his life, where he was asked how the new will had come about.
The fiscal said: “The accused explained that he found out that the deceased was due to leave the majority of his wealth to charity and that he had persuaded the deceased to change his will. He said the deceased had agreed to change the terms of his will.”
In June 2012 confirmation of the will was granted and a total of £1.2 million was paid to friends and family members who had been bequeathed specific amounts.
In March 2013 Coppola received a property in Raeburn Place, Edinburgh, which was estimated to be worth £250,000 and he sold it weeks later for £290,000. He also received a further property in the city’s Waterloo Place.
Later that year lawyers acting for Mr Ferrard contacted Medicins Sans Frontieres to inform them of concerns that had been raised.
Coppola received more than £270,000 from the estate into his bank account in October 2013 weeks before lawyers acting for the charity went to the Court of Session in Edinburgh and successfully raised an action to have the “will” set aside in 2014. Coppola chose not to defend the action.
The following year a law firm took over the administration of the estate and began trying to recover money that was due to the charity that had already been paid out to Coppola and others and police began an investigation.
Coppola, 65, admitted to officers that he had forged the signature of his relative and had the will witnessed by a man and a woman although they had no knowledge of what the document was.
He accepted he got money during the winding up of the estate and the title to two properties although he maintained that he was in the process of paying back to the estate.
He claimed that the contents of the new “will” reflected the wishes of his relative. Ms MacNeill said: “He explained that he knew the terms of the original will and did not agree that the residue of the estate should be left to Medicins Sans Frontieres.”
He alleged that he had discussed it with Mr Coppola and that the now deceased had agreed to change the terms of his will, but accepted that he had not seen the “will” nor signed it. He said he regretted his actions.
The court heard that the Crown believed Coppola had paid back £300,000 to executors of the estate and transferred back the Waterloo Place property.
The fiscal said: “A number of other properties were also ingathered by solicitors acting in the winding up of the estate but title was not transferred to the accused prior to this offence coming to light. Those properties were valued at around £4.3 million.”
The court was earlier told that efforts were continuing to check the exact position over the repayment of money.
Former property developer Coppola previously admitted that between October 9 in 2011 and October 25 in 2013 at Royal Park Terrace, Edinburgh, and elsewhere he obtained £300,000 and two properties by fraud and attempted to obtain the residue of the deceased’s estate.
He drafted a will purporting to contain the last wishes of his relative and forged his signature on it.
Sheriff Crowe told Coppola: “You took advantage of your close friendship with the late Mr Coppola and involved friends in the scheme by securing their signatures on the false will.”
Defence solicitor Kenneth McFarlane said Coppola had previously said he was “truly, truly sorry” and added: “I believe his remorse is genuine.”
Coppola faces confiscation proceedings brought by the Crown to seize any crime profits.