By Rory Cassidy

A HEARTLESS conman who duped investors out of more than £260,000 to fund a lavish lifestyle and then battered one of his victims with a baseball bat has been jailed.

Stewart Kennedy told a string of investors that a franchise in his business was the “financial opportunity of a lifetime” for them.

But the 52-year-old crook used the cash to pay for two trips to America, at a cost of nearly £30,000, and meet the £1,400-per-month bill for his son’s London flat.

Kennedy went on a cruise, visited New York and Florida, as well as Greece, and bought jewellery for his wife and tickets to Rangers games.

Others taken in by his scam were cancer consultant Hosney Yosef, pharmacist Yassir Shaheen, project manager Osamah Shaheen, former deputy headteacher Mary Scott, former financial consultant Sanjay Bhaduri, ex-law lecturer Manjit Bhogal, property investor Pauline Bailey, joiner Andrew Aitken, mechanic Michael Barrett, pub owner Brian McGeoch, homeowner Carole Reid and unemployed Allan Walker.

Also duped was plumber Stuart Caldwell, who gave Kennedy a total of £33,000 and never got any of the cash back.

When Mr Caldwell went to Kennedy’s home in Quarriers Village, Bridge of Weir, to find out what had happened to his investment, the thug attacked him with a baseball bat.

Kennedy told investors they would receive a minimum of £4,600 per month for 10 months as a return on each £15,000 sum they invested.

He charged clients a fee to restructure their debts and said each franchisee would ‘own’ a postcode, securing them £575 for every completed debt rearrangement within the area.

Defiant Kennedy denied all wrongdoing during his month-long trial at Paisley Sheriff Court.

He told a jury: “I believe I was grossly underpaid, based on the hours I put in and the effort.

“I’m entitled, as the owner of the company, to take money to pay for bills and, the last time I looked, I don’t believe it’s a crime to go on holiday.”

He blamed the collapse of the company on negative press coverage of him and said it had cost him £1.2million.

But a jury convicted him of three charges – two of fraud over the £247,405 in franchise sales and an £18,000 loan from Mr Caldwell and one of assault over the baseball bat attack.

Sentence had been deferred for background reports and, when Kennedy returned to the dock last week to learn his fate, it emerged prosecutors are pursuing him under Proceeds of Crime laws in a bid to recover his criminal profits.

Defence solicitor Gordon Ritchie said Kennedy could reimburse the investors, who were conned between April 2010 and August 2011, if spared jail as he earns nearly £100,000 per year helping businesses reduce their rates.

The lawyer added: “Under Proceeds of Crime laws, any sums recovered from the accused would go to the State. It is more important the victims of any crime get compensation, rather than the Crown and the State profit.

“Any profits under my recommendation would be repaid to the complainers.”

However, Sheriff Seith Ireland opted to jail Kennedy for four years for what he described as “a substantial fraud” that had allowed him to live “a quite luxurious lifestyle.”

A Proceeds of Crime hearing is now scheduled to take place next month.