Carley Ingram, pictured, was evicted from her two-bedroom home after she accused her landlord Fergus Wilson of sexual assault. Wilson, who was arrested and questioned but never charged with any offence, later tried to Ms Ingram for harassment, seeking £10,000 in damages from the mother-of-two
Tears filled Carley Ingram’s eyes as she told a police officer how her landlord, Fergus Wilson, had abused her trust. Reporting what she believed to have been a sexual assault was traumatic, but her burning sense of injustice overrode any feelings of fear.
She was relieved when Wilson was arrested over her allegations. But, four months later, the investigation was closed. ‘The police said there wasn’t any evidence,’ says Carley, 39, who was evicted from her two-bedroom home the week after Mr Wilson’s arrest.
Mr Wilson has not been charged with any offence and must be treated as innocent of these allegations. However, Carley assumed that she would at least finally be able to put the landlord out of her mind.
She assumed wrong.
In January 2015, eight months after Carley made the allegation against Mr Wilson, she received a letter from the 70-year-old, who along with wife Judith, 68, has been labelled Britain’s biggest and most disliked buy-to-let landlord, announcing he was going to sue her.
The Wilsons — who at one stage owned around 1,000 properties in Kent and have amassed an estimated £225m fortune — were suing Carley, a single, cash-strapped mother of two small children, for £10,000 for harassment because, Mr Wilson claimed her allegation was malicious.
The action by the Wilsons, who have just announced plans to sell their remaining 300 properties, crashing local house prices and potentially leaving scores of tenants homeless, almost destroyed Carley. And her sad story is just one of the many that a Daily Mail investigation into Mr Wilson’s business practices has uncovered.
‘I was physically sick when I got that letter,’ she says. ‘I only did what I thought was right.’
After two-and-a-half years of vicious claim and counter-claim, a judge at Maidstone County Court ruled in August 2017 that Mr Wilson had no grounds to sue. As Carley’s lawyer put it to the Mail this week: ‘You cannot sue someone for harassment for making a complaint to the police.’
The impact on Carley cannot be overstated. ‘I have had counselling, suffered PTSD and been on antidepressants. I’ve called the Samaritans and woken up screaming,’ she says. ‘Wilson ruined my life.’
Fergus Wilson, pictured with his wife Judith, outside one of their buy-to-let properties in Ashford, Kent, said the allegations were totally ‘unfounded’. He said: ‘‘Judith knows full well that I don’t like big fat ladies. Basically she wasn’t a very attractive lady. Certainly she would not interest me’
Ask Mr Wilson, on the other hand, what it was like being wrongly accused of sexual assault — surely among the most devastating allegations a man could face — and he sounds cross, but far from crushed.
Talking to me on the phone this week, he said Carley made a ‘totally’ unfounded allegation because she was behind on her rent and angry at being made to leave her home — something his former tenant firmly denies.
And then he digresses, at pains to stress that Carley is not his ‘cup of tea’ anyway, which is why, apparently, his wife of 50 years was untroubled by the allegations: ‘Judith knows full well that I don’t like big fat ladies. Basically she wasn’t a very attractive lady. Certainly she would not interest me.’
By his own admission a colossus of a man who steamrollers over conversation and appears capable of causing offence every time he opens his mouth, he is, nonetheless, apparently eager to exercise his own form of diplomacy.
‘Many of your readers will be ladies who are perhaps overweight and I’m not trying to upset anybody. Basically, my preference is for nice thin ladies.’ And then he asks me: ‘Are you a nice slim lady, or a big lady, dear?’
In the context of a conversation about an alleged sexual assault, his remarks seem inappropriate. But they are perhaps unsurprising.
Atilla Lant, 45, from Ashford, Kent, was sued by the Wilsons who claimed he caused £4,000 in damage to their property. The damage was caused by a faulty boiler which the Wilsons refused to fix. They later lost in court and were ordered to pay £2,500 in compensation to Mr Lant
This is the man, after all, who in 2014 hit an estate agent over the head in an argument over a boiler.
In 2017, a leaked email to a letting agency revealed that he had a policy of not permitting ‘coloured people’ to rent his properties because they made ‘houses smell like curry’ — a ban later overturned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
This week he told me: ‘No coloured persons seem to have taken offence that I’m aware of. They’re saying it’s sound advice. If you’re in Ashford trying to sell your Asian-occupied house to a white person, for goodness sake get rid of the curry smell first.’
Although he denies being racist, he remains staunchly unrepentant as to his appalling remarks on people of different races. Instead, he says he takes more than his ‘fair share’ of Ashford’s black families and ‘we have to accept curry is difficult to get out of the wallpaper’.
The same year, leaked letting criteria also reportedly revealed he had banned single mothers, abused women, those earning under £30,000 a year and plumbers — most of whom he suggested he either considered troublesome, likely to lead to damaged properties or prone to falling behind on rent.
Last month Judith — in whose name most of the Ashford properties are believed to be registered — was ordered to pay £25,000 in fines and legal costs for failing to supply hot water to a disabled tenant.
The defeat prompted a petulant outburst from Mr Wilson, who said: ‘Following my wife’s conviction for not restoring hot water, she immediately withdrew from letting further houses in Ashford and has greatly accelerated the disposal of her portfolio. This will result in a flooded market in Ashford and a drop in house prices by £50,000 to £100,000.’
Yet, not so long ago, the Wilsons were widely respected as aspirational entrepreneurs in Ashford. Both former maths teachers, the couple, who have two middle-aged daughters, acquired their first buy-to-let property in 1986, subsequently acquiring a massive portfolio of starter homes in the sought-after commuter town.
By the early Noughties, they had monopolised the area, at one stage purchasing a house a day, their wealth increasing by some £70,000 between breakfast and dinner as property prices soared.
The broken boiler caused considerable damage in the house Mr Lant had rented
Neither Fergus Wilson, one of nine siblings and the working-class son of a Ford car plant foundry worker, nor Judith, whose father ran a nursery business, flaunted their burgeoning bank balance. They drove second-hand cars, shunned holidays and endearingly insisted their wealth ‘didn’t really mean anything’.
But Mr Wilson’s recent disparaging comments mean respect for the couple has been replaced with revulsion.
The couple live in a relatively modest £1.25 m home on the outskirts of Maidstone, surrounded by four Dobermanns and a sign outside the front gate reading ‘Smile, you’re on CCTV’ .
And — sadly for poor Carley — they still have her in their sights.
‘All Wilson does is belittle and insult,’ says Carley, whose sons were aged six and ten at the time she reported Mr Wilson to the police.
She recalls how happy she was to move into Mr Wilson’s two-bedroom property in 2013, paying £800 a month in rent: ‘It was near the children’s school and my best friend lived down the road,’ she recalls.
Mr Wilson met Carley on the morning of May 7, 2014 to investigate a window broken during a previous tenancy. Mr Wilson says that during this time Carley ‘ended up telling me all the problems in the world’ before he left ‘at the appropriate time’.
Wilson has claimed he is suing Kent Police for £1m over their handling of the investigation into Ms Ingram’s allegations
Of course, Carley’s account differs, but because the police found no evidence to corroborate her claims, the Mail cannot repeat her allegations. It appears she was more affected as a result than Mr Wilson, who, when I ask if he was upset about being arrested, says, ‘only for a relatively short period of that day because it took so much time up’, — time, he says, when ‘I could have been earning money’.
When, the following January, Carley learned she was being sued for £10,000 (the maximum Mr Wilson could sue her for), her distress intensified. With only around £200 spare after paying her rent each month, she says she couldn’t begin to prepare for the potential pay-out if she lost.
‘Every time I got letters my stomach would flip.’ Even though Mr Wilson now can’t sue Carley, he has no intention of laying the matter to rest. He says he is suing Kent Police for £1 m for their handling of the case — a ‘claim for compensation’ police say they are unable to comment on — and intends to use his considerable fortune to take out a private prosecution against Carley for perverting the course of justice.
Surely he’s not still after her money? ‘She doesn’t have any money,’ he says. Instead, he intends to land her in prison.
‘If she’s convicted she’ll get a custodial sentence. It’s a principle. You cannot have people like this lady carrying on.’
Strangely, however, Wilson insists he isn’t bothered by other smears against him, dismissing many as ‘fake news’.
The Wilsons’ business has also, he says, been impacted by a lack of workmen willing to repair his properties in this Brexit era, leading to an influx of tenant complaints. ‘We were so reliant on European workers who’ve returned home. Can you find me some Eastern Europeans?’ he asks.
Emma Beaney, 26, was forced to move from one of the Wilsons’ houses last April after three years. During her tenancy, Emma, a hairdresser, married to Shane, 27, a factory worker, says the bathroom flooded three times and pipework under the sink broke.
‘On one occasion, we waited two weeks for the bathroom to be fixed. He never fixed the pipes under the sink — we had to throw the water from our washing up bowl away outside, until my parents’ neighbour fixed it. There were so many leaks that didn’t dry out and the house was always damp and cold. Shane and I ended up arguing. It was so stressful.’
Last January, Emma says Shane kept getting electric shocks from the sockets: ‘Then one day the wall got wet from where, we realised, the boiler had been leaking.
‘Buckets we put underneath it overfilled every night. The front of the house was flooded.’
After Emma messaged Mr Wilson on a Tuesday, he sent someone to investigate that Thursday before 3pm — although she had explained she would be at work and they would be unable to enter. Emma then told him she was legally entitled to request 24 hours’ notice of a landlord visit. ‘That obviously annoyed him,’ she recalls. ‘He told me I was overflowing the bath and didn’t know what a leak was. Then he said he wanted my husband and me to find somewhere else to live.’
The ‘upset and angry’ couple moved out two months later. ‘It’s disgusting he doesn’t feel responsibility towards his tenants,’ says Emma. ‘He makes my blood boil.’
Fergus Wilson issued a controversial list of requirements to letting agents about the people who he wanted to move into his homes
Mr Wilson says he doesn’t recognise Emma’s name, but that her story sounds ‘symptomatic of the fact there are no workmen’.
He adds that the 24 hours’ notice requirement does not apply to a flood situation and that ‘it sounds like I didn’t want her as a tenant because of the difficulty getting into her property’.
Attila Lant, 45, a mobile phone technician, was sued for £4,000 by the Wilsons for damage to their rented home that Mr Lant says was caused by a faulty water tank his landlords failed to fix for two months. Attila, who lived in the Ashford property with partner Eva, 46, a cleaner, and their five-year-old son, believes the Wilsons ‘don’t care’ about money: ‘They just want to crush people.’
In May 2015, he noticed a wet patch on the carpet that got bigger every day. ‘We found it coming out of the boiler and reported it to the Wilsons on a Thursday or Friday.
‘They sent me a message the next Tuesday saying they had sent a maintenance worker round but there was nobody at home,’ says Mr Lant who insists, however, that there was no sign of anyone visiting to repair the boiler as days passed. ‘We had to move to a different bedroom because we couldn’t bear the smell. The whole ceiling above the fridge collapsed and the lights went out.’
A week after Mr Lant reported the leak, he says he and his family were told they had to leave: ‘Wilson said he didn’t have to give a reason. I couldn’t believe it was happening. We never missed payments or complained about little things.’
He says that by the time the family left that July, the leak still hadn’t been fixed, and, shortly afterwards, he was astounded to learn he was being sued by the Wilsons for £4,000 for the damage the leak had done to the property.
Aghast, Mr Lant enlisted the help of Kent Law Clinic at the University of Kent, which has offered free legal advice to Wilson’s tenants.
His solicitor, Vivien Gambling, brought a counter claim against Judith Wilson — whose name the property was in — for failing to repair the leaking hot water cylinder. The judge found she was in breach of her obligation and awarded Mr Lant damages of £2,500.
‘The judge said he could not understand why it wasn’t fixed and that the case could easily have been sorted out,’ says Gambling.
‘When giving his judgment he said: “Mr Wilson can let his defensive instincts get the better of him and say unpleasant things.”’
Mr Wilson, for his part, describes Mr Lant as a ‘man with lots of problems’ whose partner refused to let him into the house to fix the water tank, claiming all three attempts Mr Wilson made were inconvenient. ‘It was fixed as soon as we had access. I did not evict him. I was prepared to put him back in a comparable house. He left before we had the possession order,’ he says.
‘The total damage he caused was extensive. Whether it was his fault or not, we couldn’t get in because they were too busy doing other things.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr Wilson insists he has no regrets. ‘If you don’t like me, find another landlord.’
As our conversation ends, I ask him how much he is worth as he winds down his property empire. £100m? ‘I’m worth more than £100m, thank you,’ he says, adding that ‘the value of houses goes up by the minute’ so he can’t reveal his ‘precise’ wealth.
More than a little sickening, no doubt, for those hard-up tenants he’s turfed out and sued for every last penny.
In the seven days after I interview Mr Wilson, he sends Mail reporter Stephanie and me around 15 emails. They contain details of a legal case he has won, and correspondence between former tenants he claims proves he is a good landlord.
He sends us a ‘source folder’ he has compiled for his work ‘in taking battered wives’ — it contains 107 pictures of horrifically beaten women. He forwards me a warning he has issued to a charity worker who has written a blog about him he doesn’t like, and a disdainful email he has sent to the representative of an unhappy tenant.
Some emails are innocuous; others feel threatening. He says he doesn’t seek to influence any article but that ‘Antonia would do well to look before she leaps’ and that, ‘I do hope, for Antonia’s sake, she gets it right.’
He signs off one email with ‘my regards to [your husband] and the kids!’, referring to my husband by name. I haven’t told him I am married, my husband’s name, or that I have children. Were it not for the knowledge that the Mail will protect me, I would feel intimidated. I realise how afraid his unhappy tenants — who have no representation — must feel.
- Additional reporting: STEPHANIE CONDRON