A Whitland woman who stole cash raised to start a memorial fund in the name of a friend killed in a car crash has escaped an immediate jail sentence after borrowing enough to reinstate the fund.

Natalie Thomas, aged 25, borrowed £8,500 to repay the fund set up after the death of Laura Rees, who worked at the day nursery at Glangwili Hospital and who died after a road accident on the A40 St Clears to Whitland road.

Swansea crown court heard how friends and family members organised money raising events with the intention of donating in Laura’s name to the Bandi appeal, which was helping to finance the building of a centre for sick children in Carmarthen.

Chris James, prosecuting, said Thomas, of Bryngwenllian, Whitland, approached Laura’s mother, Angela, and told her she wanted to help, and went on to raise more than £10,000 during a charity night in January, 2013, attended by 800 people.

Further, unknown amounts were donated in cash in collection boxes.

Mr James said Thomas became obstructive and neither handed over the money or paid it into the charity’s bank account.

However, Miss Rees’ family still trusted her, such was her perceived closeness.

A year after Laura’s death the turf was cut to begin the building of the new children’s centre and Mrs Rees had wanted to present the money raised so far in the name of her daughter.

But Thomas still refused to hand over the money. And when Mrs Rees checked the status of the bank account she found there was only £1,950. The rest, added Mr James, could not be accounted for.

Thomas tried to claim the real balance was about £11,250 but that she still had a number of cheques to pay in.

In a bid to cover her tracks, Thomas began approaching local businesses asking for donations—she asked a monumental mason to give £10,000 and the resident of a care home for £1,500.

Mr James said even after her arrest Thomas denied stealing the missing money, and claimed at first it was at the home of her brother.

On being questioned by police a second time she admitted she had been “dipping” into the fund.

David Williams, the barrister representing Thomas, said she had used the stolen money to help her family and not to finance a luxury lifestyle.

“She regrets the pain that she has caused to her friend’s family, particularly Angela Rees. That was not her intention,” he added.

He said since the offending had come to light local people had expressed “their severe disapproval in brutal terms.”

A friend of Thomas had taken out a loan of £8,500 so she could repay the charity fund, and Thomas would in turn pay off the loan.

Thomas admitted theft.

Judge Christopher Vosper QC said an immediate jail sentence would badly affect Thomas’ children and could mean she could not continue to repay her friend.

Thomas was jailed for 12 months, the sentence suspended for two years. She was also ordered to carry out 150 hours of unpaid work.

Laura was killed in October 2012 while on the way to a bridesmaid dress fitting.

She was later buried in the dress.