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

A couple who befriended an elderly man and tried to manipulate him into giving them control of their six-bedroom ski chalet in the Snowy Mountains have been blasted as “thieves” by a judge.

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

But in an extraordinary case to the contrary, NSW Supreme Court Justice Kelly Rees handed down a scathing ruling last week, rejecting the couple’s claim for damages for breach of lease and compensation for work carried out on the property.

“The plaintiffs are not entitled to the relief sought,” she said. “In reality they are frauds.”

The evidence heard by the court painted what the verdict called a “clear picture” of an unscrupulous couple taking to the home of a frail and lonely old man to turn it into a money-making enterprise for their own benefit.

The court heard that the police eventually intervened and evicted Mrs May and Mr Gibson last August after Mr Walker’s friends and colleagues became concerned he was a victim of elder abuse, with one warning him “that he is on RED flags” and emphasized “DO NOT sign anything Dean Gibson or his family gives you.

There were no criminal charges.

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

They started a conversation – Mr. Walker told the court she appeared distraught and lost – and explained she was struggling to find a place to rent as her lease in Cooma expires next month.

The court heard that Mr Walker had “an eye for the ladies and Mrs May was prepared to exploit that susceptibility”. He offered her temporary accommodation in his cabin, called Winter Park, and invited the couple to tour the property.

Mr Walker worked for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in his youth and bought 40 acres of land at Crackenback in the 1970s.

Over the years, he built a number of buildings, including a 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 several weeks, and had several long-term guests. The court heard that at the time of the events he wanted to continue developing and improving Winter Park but was constrained by a lack of funds and his frail condition.

A tentative arrangement emerged for the couple to live rent-free in Winter Park for a time while helping to manage and improve the accommodation with Gibson’s skills as a carpenter – a prospect that initially excited Mr Walker.

Emails released to the court reveal how immediately after their first meeting, Mrs May began showering the older man with titillating compliments and romantic language, often calling him “Sir Neil” and telling him she missed him.

“This is your new friend Abby,” she wrote in her first message that night.

The next day, they exchanged 15 e-mails in just over an hour.

“We are so excited that I started packing last night…can’t wait to get the whole thing started for all of us!” she wrote, urging him to “don’t worry and think too much” and to “think about having some friends come over for a few weeks and see how we’re doing”.

“You are so kind,” Mr. Walker replied to one email. “Good looks too.”

On February 21, 2023, Mrs May wrote to “Sir Neil” and told him “I miss you and our new home”. “Here in Sydney I feel stuck and I don’t feel at home anymore,” she said.

“I feel safe with you, I feel safe with you and on the farm. I will remain sad until I return to you. I’m thinking of you xx”

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

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

Mr. Walker said: “I most humbly enjoy your heartfelt emails, we have been waiting for your lovely emails for a long life. There is so much to discuss.”

Judge Rees said the emails between the pair at the time “constitute a powerful campaign by Mrs May which I believe was highly manipulative to encourage Mr Walker’s emotional attachment”.

“It’s had some success,” she said. “Mr Walker said there was some attitude in the first month, ‘Then it went downhill.'”

After their second meeting in Winter Park on February 1, Mr. Walker sent an email offering to rent part of the house to the couple only until June 30 — as opposed to letting them use it as an Airbnb and run the cabin, as they had hoped.

“Ho Hi. Phew,” Mrs May replied in apparent frustration.

Despite this, the couple moved in on February 3 and began doing odd jobs on the property, with Mr Walker in talks to cook for guests.

Later in the month they visited Mr. Walker at a dinner during which Mr. Gibson said they needed a lease for their own safety if they were going to keep “doing all this work.”

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

Judge Lees said the “absurd terms” of the draft tenancy agreement “suggest that the couple were either commercially unsophisticated or overestimated the strength of their new relationship with Mr Walker or his naivety (or a combination of these)”.

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

Facebook page of the cottage, apparently founded by the daughter of Mr. Gibson, contains several photographs of views from the property. “Family ski lodge,” it says in the description. “Forty acres of love, nature and wildlife. Book through Airbnb.”

A second draft of the contract drawn up by May proposed giving Gibson the authority to “assume full management of Winter Park”, complete with a 30-year lease plus an optional 30 years and an option to buy.

Mr Walker never signed this either.

By May, the relations between the parties were strained, Mr. Walker, however, began to worry about their use of the house.

He sent an email to a friend, one of his longtime guests at the cottage, describing his concerns that they might take over the house as squatters.

His friend agreed and said he was worried they might try to claim his assets as dependents and suggested they call the police.

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

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

“I don’t feel good about this Neil and I think you need to seek legal advice to evict Dean and his family from your property immediately. It has RED flags everywhere. … DO NOT sign anything that Dean Gibson or his family gives you.”

On June 7, Mr Walker is said to have signed a 30-year lease which has been the subject of Supreme Court proceedings.

That same evening he emailed his friend: “Would appreciate it if you called…I’ve been having trouble with DEAN and ABBY.”

The couple was served with an eviction notice on July 8 and police evicted them on August 8.

The following day, a domestic violence arrest warrant was issued against Mrs May and Mr Gibson to protect Mr Walker.

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

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

It further rejected claims for compensation based on the alleged statements of Mr. Walker about their deal.

“It’s hard to understand what damage or loss was caused when a couple enjoyed free lodging in Winter Park for months, spent little of their own resources, but took reservations for about $1,900 a night,” she said.

“Booking.com records show that Mr. Gibson raised approximately $20,000. In addition to the $1,000 Mr. Walker received, the couple kept the money.

Although the court acknowledged that some work had been carried out on the property, it appeared to have been “done ‘on the cheap'”.

Excavations carried out by Mr. Gibson to create the car park were “of a very poor standard and require significant remedial work to ensure compliance for structural and safety purposes”, the court heard, at an estimated cost of up to $130,000 just to make the area safe.

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

frank.chung@news.com.au

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