Pair of ‘rogues’ blasted by judge over ‘manipulative’ scheme to take over elderly bachelor’s ski lodge

A couple who befriended an elderly bachelor and tried to manipulate him into giving them control of his six-bedroom ski lodge in the Snowy Mountains have been branded “crooks” by a judge.

Abby May, 44, and Dean Gibson, 50, began proceedings in the New South Wales Supreme Court last year against 82-year-old Neil Walker to enforce what they said was a 30-year lease on his ski lodge at Crackenback, 10 minutes from Thredbo.

But in an extraordinary setback, New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Kelly Rees last week delivered a damning judgment, rejecting the couple’s claim for damages for breach of contract and compensation for work carried out on the property.

“The plaintiffs are not entitled to the compensation they are seeking,” she said. “In fact, they are villains.”

The evidence presented to the court, as the judgment put it, painted a “clear picture” of an unscrupulous couple who forcibly gained access to the home of a frail and lonely old man in order to turn it into a lucrative business for their own benefit.

The court heard that police were eventually called in and removed Ms May and Mr Gibson from the premises last August after friends and acquaintances of Mr Walker raised concerns that he was a victim of elder abuse. One of them warned him that “there are warning signs everywhere” and stressed: “Do not sign ANYTHING that Dean Gibson or his family give you.”

No criminal charges were filed.

Ms May, a former chef who also goes by the name Hoda Makki, met Mr Walker by chance in January 2023 when he took a bus from Cooma to Jindabyne for a medical appointment.

They started talking – Mr Walker told the court she seemed distressed and lost – and she explained she was having difficulty finding somewhere to rent as her lease in Cooma was due to expire next month.

The court found that Mr Walker “had an eye for the ladies and Mrs May was prepared to exploit this vulnerability”. He offered her temporary accommodation at his lodge, called Winter Park, and invited the couple to view the property.

Mr Walker worked for the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric project in his youth and bought the 40 acres of land at Crackenback in the 1970s.

Over the years he constructed a number of buildings, including the six-bedroom house and granny flat that was his primary residence, as well as sheds and dams.

Mr Walker rented out the main house during the snow season, sometimes for weeks at a time, and had several long-term guests. The court heard that at the time of the events he wanted to continue to develop and improve Winter Park, but was hampered by lack of funds and his frail condition.

A tentative agreement was reached whereby the couple would live rent-free in Winter Park for a time and help to run and improve the property, with Mr. Gibson helping out as a carpenter – a prospect that initially seemed to excite Mr. Walker.

Emails presented to the court show that immediately after their first meeting, Mrs May showered the elderly man with effusive praise and romantic expressions, often referring to him as “Sir Neil” and telling him she missed him.

“Here’s your new friend Abby,” she wrote in her first message that evening.

The next day, the two exchanged 15 emails in just over an hour.

“We are so excited that I started packing my things last night… I can’t wait for something brand new to begin for all of us!” she wrote, urging him to “not stress or think about it too much” and “remember that you have some friends coming over for a few weeks and we’ll see how it goes.”

“You are so nice,” Mr Walker replied to an email. “And you look good too.”

On February 21, 2023, Ms May wrote to “Sir Neil” telling him: “I miss you and our new home.” “I feel stressed here in Sydney and it doesn’t feel like home anymore,” she said.

“I feel safe with you. I feel safe around you and on the farm. I will stay sad until I am with you again. I am thinking of you xx”

Mr Walker replied: “Thank you, I have some of the same personal feelings.”

The next day, Mrs. May said she was waiting patiently to return to Winter Park, “to the magical land where you opened your doors to me.”

Mr Walker said: “I am humbled to receive your warm emails. I have waited a lifetime for your lovely emails. There is so much to discuss.”

Judge Rees said the emails between the two at the time “represented a massive campaign by Mrs May which I consider to be highly manipulative and the aim of which was to create an emotional attachment in Mr Walker”.

“It was somewhat successful,” she said. “Mr. Walker said there was some rapport for the first month, ‘then it went downhill.'”

After their second meeting in Winter Park on February 1, Mr. Walker emailed the couple offering to rent part of the house only until June 30 – rather than allowing them to use it as an Airbnb and operate the lodge as they had hoped.

“Ho Hi. Poo,” Mrs. May replied, visibly disappointed.

Nevertheless, the couple moved in on February 3 and began doing some work on the property. There were also discussions with Mr Walker about whether they might be able to cook for guests.

Later that month, they visited Mr Walker for dinner and Mr Gibson informed him that if they continued to do “all this work,” they would need a lease for their security.

Mrs. May then hand-wrote a draft agreement proposing that Mr. Walker grant them a 99-year lease, along with an option to purchase Winter Park.

Judge Lees said the “absurd terms” of the draft lease “suggested that the couple were either inexperienced in business or overestimated the strength of their new bond with Mr Walker or their naivety (or some combination thereof).”

Around this time, Mr Gibson’s daughter posted a message on Facebook promoting bookings for Winter Park, explaining: “My family and I just took over a ski lodge. [in] Crackenback!”

A Facebook page for the lodge, apparently set up by Gibson’s daughter, features several photos of views from the property. “Family-run ski lodge,” the description reads. “40 acres of love, nature and wildlife. Book through Airbnb.”

A second draft agreement prepared by Ms. May proposed giving Mr. Gibson authority to “assume full management of Winter Park,” along with a 30-year lease plus an optional 30 years and an option to purchase.

This too was never signed by Mr Walker.

In May, relations between the parties deteriorated as Mr Walker became concerned about the use of the house.

He sent an email to a friend, one of his long-time lodge guests, describing his fears that they might take over the house as squatters.

His friend agreed and expressed his fear that they, as relatives, might try to lay claim to his estate and suggested calling the police.

Another woman who arranged accommodation for Perisher Blue staff and had inspected Winter Park was the first to contact police after becoming concerned about the couple’s dealings with Mr Walker.

“I thought it was Dean Gibson’s property, but when I met you before Dean arrived, you told me it was your property,” she emailed Mr Walker on May 4.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this, Neil, and I think you need to seek legal advice to evict Dean and his family from your property immediately. This is all a red flag. … Do NOT sign ANYTHING that Dean Gibson or his family give you.”

On 7 June, Mr Walker is said to have signed the 30-year lease that was the subject of the Supreme Court proceedings.

That same evening he wrote an email to his friend: “It would be most appreciated if you would call… I had trouble with DEAN and ABBY.”

The couple received an eviction notice on July 8 and were expelled by police on August 8.

The following day, a provisional domestic violence warrant was issued against Mrs May and Mr Gibson for the protection of Mr Walker.

They filed suit on August 14 and the case was heard over four days last month, with the couple representing themselves.

On the issue of the alleged lease, Mr Justice Lees ruled that Mrs May had written Mr Walker’s name on the document but that Mr Walker had never signed it.

In addition, it rejected claims for compensation based on Mr Walker’s alleged statements about their agreement.

“It’s hard to know what damage or loss was caused considering the couple lived rent-free in Winter Park for months, spending very little money themselves but accepting bookings for about $1,900 a night,” she said.

“Booking.com records show that Mr. Gibson collected approximately $20,000. Aside from the $1,000 that Mr. Walker received, the couple kept the money.”

The court acknowledged that some work had been carried out on the property, but that it had apparently been carried out “cheaply”.

The excavation work carried out by Mr Gibson to create a car park was “of very poor quality and requires extensive remedial work to meet both structural and safety requirements,” the court said. The estimated cost of securing the area alone is up to $130,000.

The judge ordered Ms May and Mr Gibson to pay Mr Walker’s legal costs.

frank.chung@news.com.au

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