Three domestic helpers have been jailed for up to five years for stealing and pawning more than HK$14 million (US$1.8 million) worth of jewellery and valuables from the luxury home of Hong Kong shipping magnate David Liang Chong-hou.
Deputy High Court judge Andrew Bruce on Tuesday called it a serious case of theft involving a breach of trust on the part of the Liangs’ then helper, who not only betrayed her employers over a substantial period, but also “shamelessly” exploited her two relatives to act as handlers for the stolen goods.
But the judge also accepted the crime had been motivated by the “terrible burden” represented by the helper’s need to care for her ill mother, and that all three defendants were genuinely remorseful for their involvement in an operation that was “simply not sophisticated”.
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Carmelita Galay Nones, 47, was jailed for four years and 11 months on six counts of theft, involving valuables worth more than HK$14.6 million.
Her niece Maricris Galay Nones, 32, and cousin Cristina Noble Alagna, 51, were jailed for one year and four months each on four and six counts of handling stolen property, respectively.
The court previously heard Carmelita Nones had stolen watches, jewellery and gold bars from Liang and his wife, Helen Frances Liang, while employed as a helper at their Deep Water Bay residence between 2018 and 2019.
She then pawned some of the stolen items with the help of her two relatives – who would subsequently give her the money – while keeping other pieces in her room and at her sister’s place in the city.
The thefts came to light when police noticed records of suspicious transactions by Carmelita Nones during a regular pawnshop inspection in July 2019.
She was arrested on September 4 that year after officers visited the Liangs at their home and confirmed the items belonged to them.
They were attempting to put right what they have done, which is clearly so very wrong
Judge Andrew Bruce on the two accomplices
Her two relatives then volunteered assistance in recovering the pawned items, which included goods the Liangs had not realised were stolen, while her sister Marina Galay Biala, also a domestic helper, returned those she kept.
Helen Liang also spent close to HK$2 million buying back items from pawnshops, though not all the pieces could be recovered.
In January, Carmelita Nones and her two relatives pleaded guilty during committal proceedings at Eastern Court, while her sister denied the charges, with her trial set in the District Court.
In mitigation, Carmelita Nones’ defence counsel Oliver Davies said she needed the money to pay for the medical treatment of her mother, who had fallen ill in the Philippines in 2015 and died last year.
The court heard Helen Liang felt “violated and betrayed” by the domestic worker she had once trusted. Her victim’s impact statement also revealed allegations that Carmelita Nones had used her monetary gains to fund her lifestyle and buy property and cars in the Philippines.
But the judge found it inappropriate to rely on such allegations in sentencing since they were derived from Facebook and the prosecution had no intention of taking them further.
“On any view, the theft in this case is a theft involving a breach of trust,” he said.
Bruce further observed that Carmelita Nones had “shamelessly used” her relatives, and that he “deeply suspected lies were told to exploit” them.
But he also concluded the two relatives must have realised they were handling stolen goods for a person in a position of trust.
In helping the Liangs recover the stolen property, he said: “They were attempting to put right what they have done, which is clearly so very wrong.”
Bruce said such efforts were “commendable” and eventually granted them a higher sentencing discount than that given to Carmelita Nones.
Theft in Hong Kong is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, while handling stolen goods carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.