Sunday 15 December 2019

Queen Bee's honey sting before her tragic end

Julia Holmes' Irish Bee Sensations Honey won food awards left, right and centre, but it was all a con, says Lucinda O'Sullivan

Tom and Croen Ruttle, at The Blas na h-Eireann / Irish Food Awards at The Dingle Food Festival in Dingle County Kerry in 2013.
Picture: macmonagle
Tom and Croen Ruttle, at The Blas na h-Eireann / Irish Food Awards at The Dingle Food Festival in Dingle County Kerry in 2013. Picture: macmonagle

Lucinda O'Sullivan

Twitter is an extraordinary medium. It can make or break you, which I guess you could say happened in the case of the wanted fraudster Julia Holmes. She was found dead last week in Co Limerick along with her partner Tom Ruttle, by burglars who got the fright of their lives when they found the pair, and wound up rapidly reporting it to the gardai.

Holmes, who was wanted for fraud in Northern Ireland and the US, using the name 'Croein Ruttle', established her Irish Bee Sensations [IBS] honey business in the Irish foodie world, quickly creating an online buzz. However, just as quickly as Twitter established her, the fact that she tweeted too persistently at times drew attention to her. She was ultimately identified by another Twitter user, who recognised her as Julia Holmes. Accusations were made, the Twitter account was suddenly closed down, she disappeared and the tragic consequences ensued.

Whatever the trail of devastation and angst Holmes left in her wake over a 40-year period both here and in the US, you've got to hand it to her, she was a great 'conwoman'!

I smiled a little to myself when I thought of her in her kitchen, busily bottling her jars of 'Irish Heather Honey', rumoured to have been bought in vast quantities from German supermarkets, to be passed off as from her own 'beehives'. While Tom Ruttle was a beekeeper, there was only one beehive at their home, and such extensive production would have been impossible.

She clearly believed in going the full hog and had the neck to submit 'her' Irish honey to the Blas na hEireann 2014 Food Awards, coming away as Queen Bee with a shiny Gold Medal and the Chef's Choice Award. Not only that, but her Boozy Bees Amarena Cherries in Honey and Potcheen "from her sister's small farm in Sicily", said to be from the same supermarket shelves and dickied up, won a Silver Medal. This means, of course, if it was their produce, that these German supermarkets were bagging awards of which they were not aware!

The stuff was good, the only thing was its provenance was not what she claimed. She conducted her con in a totally professional manner, using attractive packaging and providing all the necessary criteria for the competition. However, Blas na hEireann posted notice of a "review" re: Irish Bee Sensations in mid-April, which is ongoing.

They tell me "they have just found a lab in Germany which can place the local pollen, therefore the flora, from which the honey was produced, locating it geographically". Although, you would imagine a laboratory test in Ireland would soon indicate whether or not it was actually an Irish honey.

IBS are still on their award-winner's list, while other foodies and bloggers are rushing, with an almost indecent haste, to disassociate themselves from even any vague connection. I guess if it was 'By Appointment to Her Majesty', the award would have been stripped faster than Rolf Harris's CBE!

She's not the first culinary con artist, and she won't be the last. There is a huge craving nowadays for, and vast money to be made in the business of, organic and healthy foods. All of which can be exploited left right and centre.

A couple of years ago, in the UK, a company called Stark Naked Foods was fined more than £20,000 for passing off a cheap pesto sauce as a high-end version. It claimed its pesto sauce was made with extra virgin olive oil and Grana Padano cheese, whereas in fact it was made from sunflower oil and a cheaper Latvian cheese. Also in the UK, an egg packer was jailed after making some £3m by passing off foreign battery cage eggs as free-range, selling them through Tesco, Morrison's and Sainsbury's.

Another creative lady was discovered to be buying decent quality meat pies from a local butcher, which she was repackaging and selling as 'organic', at much higher prices, to top-notch food stores in London.

In the case of Holmes, she was accepted into the small Irish food scene rapidly. "We all like to encourage new businesses, and we all trust one another," said Tara Hammond of Slated Ireland, who supplies many restaurants and chefs, including Neven Maguire, with her beautiful products. Neven was unwittingly taken in by Julia Holmes, and did a charity cookery demonstration with her.

"The only thing I can compare it to is the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can," says Tara, adding: "I met her on Twitter and found her very intense, constantly 'favouriting' and retweeting my posts. She wanted to display her products on my Slated stands, which she needed in a rush for the upcoming Taste of Cavan last year. Consequently, I shipped her order without getting payment first.

"However, after that, instead of getting payment, I was getting constant phone calls about her 'making plum jam as we spoke', and how 'Tom was out in the orchard picking the plums'. Most people who owe you money avoid you, but she kept phoning me. She wanted to re-order, which I wouldn't allow, so she paid me and re-ordered.

"However, again there was a problem getting the money, with various stories of the cheque coming from Canada, and from her son.

"I did notice that she spelt her name as both Croein and Croen, which I thought a bit strange. She invited me to the Irish Quality Food Awards, where we were amongst a table of 10 people. She told us she had cancer and was dying, that she had five to nine months to live. She also told me she was celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary.

"Tom was very quiet, but he was in the background of the calls and even he must have known he wasn't married to her for 30 years."

Food, travel and hospitality consultant and publicist Paul O'Connor encountered 'Croein' when he was in the shoe business. "She and Tom Ruttle arrived into my shop and kindly gave me a jar of her honey and a jar of her Amerana cherries. She told me the cherries came from her sister's farm in Sicily. By the way, she didn't have a sister.

"She was wearing a wig, but I'd been told she was having chemotherapy. She did all the talking, while Tom seemed shy. Instinctively, I was uncomfortable with her, she stayed overly long in the shop, so much so that I had to say I was busy. She had been given my phone number by a friend, and rang me on a regular basis for advice on how to market her products. It reached the stage where I had to ignore her calls. She later asked if I'd give her 10 pairs of shoes and 10 handbags for a women's refuge she was volunteering with in Cork." O'Connor was suspicious of her and avoided being 'stung' himself.

She approached a couple of food writers about doing a 'honey book', introducing herself as 'a friend of Neven Maguire'. Both writers were prepared to talk about her but didn't want to be named.

On being told by the first writer that she wasn't interested in undertaking the commission unless it would also be sold in the US, Holmes, almost unbelievably, came back with a contract from a company she said she was going to use in the US. However, when asked to come up with some honey recipes, she produced four - "which could have been written by a child".

She started promising to leave money in her will to this person's daughter, which was somewhat alarming, and, when that was totally rejected, she apparently got very unpleasant and persistent.

She then moved on to another chef writer and blogger, who had told me just before news of her death emerged that "he had wasted six months of his time on her, and that she also owed a lot of money to his wife's business".

Some people have said to me, they wondered was Holmes really dead. There was even concern that she might have dug up two bodies and used them as a cover while she fled to France. It seems the gardai were taking no chances either, doing DNA checks on the bodies to establish the facts.

It certainly is a tale that is stranger than fiction.

Sunday Independent

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