A BUSINESS owner says he has been left “heartbroken and astonished” after a woman who stole almost £20,000 from his company avoided a jail term.

Financial controller Nicola Elstow, 47, admitted two counts of fraud after stealing £19,808 from her employer Animal Systems, based in Berwick St Leonard.

At Salisbury Crown Court on Thursday she was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence with 12 months’ supervision and was ordered to carry out 150 hours of unpaid work.

Judge John Dixon said: “I hope you can put this unhappy behaviour behind you and learn your lesson. Don’t ever let yourself get into this position again.”

But Elstow’s victim Monty Quick, managing director of the computer hardware company, said as a result of her actions his company took up to a year to recover, he has been threatened and his trust has been destroyed.

“The world just opened up and swallowed me,”

said Mr Quick. “It’s heartbreaking the amount of trust I had in this woman, then she did this to all of us.”

Mr Quick found out Elstow, of Elm Close, Salisbury had been stealing from his company in March 2011, when bailiffs turned up at his office.

Investigations revealed she had started stealing money just a month after she began working for the company in August 2009.

Salisbury County Court had been trying to contact Mr Quick to recoup money Elstow owed to a number of livery yards, where she kept her 34 horses, but she had been intercepting his mail.

She had also been using the company credit card to buy equipment and food for the animals.

Mr Quick said he was receiving phone calls from companies wanting payment and that the company’s reputation has suffered as well as losing what he estimates as £80,000.

“I’ve had really threatening calls,” he said. “I’ve had people shouting at me down the phone when I’ve been trying to run my business.”

But Mr Quick, who has run the business for about 12 years, said the company has now recovered and he’s looking forward to expanding it.

“We’ve got some really nice new staff and we’re just about to take on a young apprentice,” he said. “We can move on now.”