Soaring high in the skies above the Cotswolds in an airplane, I felt a sense of freedom and exhilaration I had not known for months.
It was August 2012 and my fiancé, Mark, had phoned me that afternoon and asked if I fancied going flying. Thirty minutes later he picked me up and drove me to the small airfield at Kemble, Gloucestershire, which is where he kept his collection of classic aircraft.
Among the 20 or so planes stored in a vast hangar there were two Spitfires but I was to go up in a 1936 Ryan STA, a silver monoplane with two cockpits.
It was beautiful and romantic-looking but I was surprised to learn that I would be flown by Mark’s business associate, James Miller, even though Mark claimed to be an experienced pilot himself.
I didn’t question it at the time but, as I would later discover, this was one of the many lies he had told me as part of his elaborate plan to drain my bank account of the temporary $1.2 million surplus I had between selling my house and buying another.
None of the airplanes belonged to him and James was another of his victims. A mining engineer by training, he was a genuine vintage aircraft enthusiast who was hoping to buy an airfield with money promised by Mark, but would soon find his reputation in tatters as a result of his dealings with him.
Bringing us together on that August day was typical of the cleverness with which Mark conducted both his business and romance scams.
Then in his late 30s, he had been conning people since he was 16 and had served several jail sentences as a result. To provide ‘evidence’ of his wealth and connections, he liked to use real people and play them off against each other, as he did with James and me.
How could I doubt that he would one day pay back my money when he operated in a world where impromptu treats like that flight were possible?
My money was supposed to cover a temporary cash flow problem he had relating to renovations of Widcombe Manor, a Grade I-listed Georgian manor house on the outskirts of Bath.
This was supposedly the home we were to share once we were married, but the truth was that he never owned it and when he suddenly announced one day that he no longer planned for us to live there, the reason he gave was that it could never be made secure enough.
This was an issue because, as he had begun pretending early in our relationship, he falsely claimed he worked for the Swiss bank UBS and that the job was cover for being an MI6 spy.
‘Don’t forget, I infiltrated the IRA,’ he said when I questioned why we couldn’t live in the manor house. ‘They tortured me but I got away, and they don’t forget.’
How could I doubt that he would one day pay back my money when he operated in a world where impromptu treats like that flight were possible?
While we looked for somewhere else, I was happy to continue living in my rented cottage in the Cotswold town of Tetbury, but Mark insisted I give it up. Instead, we would move into a beautiful Georgian town house in Brock Street in Bath, a road which leads up to the Royal Crescent and is one of the city’s most prestigious addresses.
He told me that he had bought this magnificent $4.2 million property, but in fact he had forged my signature on the tenancy agreement and paid a year’s rent up front using some of the money I’d given him for the supposed renovations at Widcombe Manor.
For him, the Brock Street house served two purposes; keeping me on board by convincing me that he was a man of means, and enabling him to impress other potential victims with his taste and wealth.
To that end, he needed to get me out of the house every now and then, engineering events so that he could use the house when necessary.
On one occasion, he promised to take me flying for a second time and asked me to meet him at Kemble airfield. He never showed up and I was away for three hours, giving him plenty of time to use Brock Street for a business meeting or other assignations.
As I later learned, these once included a shoot with a young model who was offered an $84,000 contract by Mark but never received a penny. When she arrived she discovered that she was to pose in lingerie with Mark as the photographer.
He was meant to be living at Brock Street with me but, according to him, secret agents were not supposed to be in relationships and MI6 were doing their best to sabotage ours by sending him on missions all around the world.
Twice he claimed to have been shot during undercover operations in Syria, the first time turning up with a bandage on his arm and the second claiming that the bullet wound was in his leg. In truth, he was living in a village less than three miles away with his Spanish wife and their two daughters.
Worried for him as well as about what would happen to my money if something happened to him, I also began to fear for my life.
Once, a young model was offered an $84,000 contract by Mark for a shoot. When she arrived she discovered that she was to pose in lingerie with Mark as the photographer.
When he first told me of his espionage work, Mark had promised that our relationship would never put me in any danger, but now he didn’t seem so sure.
Toward the end of that summer he sent his assistant, Paul, to take my car in for servicing and told me that the brakes appeared to have been tampered with. ‘I wouldn’t put anything past MI6,’ he said, telling me to keep the shutters closed so that surveillance cameras could not see in and ordering Paul to check some chairs delivered to the house for listening devices.
Once, when we were there together, he drew my attention to two police officers walking in nearby Victoria Park. ‘Good’, he said. ‘They’ve put extra officers on duty while I’m here. They said they would.’
The police presence in Bath that day was no doubt exactly the same as on any other, but Mark was highly skilled at painting pictures in people’s minds, a talent typical of psychopaths, which is what I now believe him to be.
I couldn’t talk to anyone about his work as a spy and its impact on our relationship. Even if I had been able to, I was increasingly isolated from friends whose well-meaning concerns about the speed with which I had given up my old life to be with him were interpreted by me as an attack.
I felt I was teetering on the edge of reason. I had always thought that whatever happened, however much I lost, nobody could steal my mind. Now, however, I wasn’t sure. I felt I was losing my grip on everything — and it frightened me.
Increasingly introverted, I lost all my confidence and spent much of my time alone and miserable, waiting for phone calls and texts with news of when we might see each other again.
That autumn Mark told me a tumor had been found on his brain and that he needed an urgent operation.
He showed me photographs of his scans on his phone, but said I couldn’t accompany him to Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital for his surgery because MI6 feared what state secrets he might reveal to me as he came around from his anesthetic.
The real reason he didn’t want me there was that he never really had a brain tumor but he kept up the pretense, ringing me while he was still supposedly an inpatient and telling me he had found a way of seeing me.
Twice he claimed to have been shot during undercover operations in Syria, the first time turning up with a bandage on his arm and the second claiming that the bullet wound was in his leg.
Early that evening I drove to the car park near the neurology unit as requested and he opened the passenger door and got in for a few minutes.
His head was heavily bandaged and some sort of tube was coming out of the side of his head. I was worried sick for him, but now I suspect that his bandages were expertly applied by a doctor I have since discovered he was in a relationship with — and whom he was also fleecing for money.
I have no idea whose scans he showed me, but the fake brain operation lent weight to one of his many stories about why he was unable to pay me back.
He claimed that his assistant, Paul, had taken advantage of his poor health to siphon money from his accounts. ‘Now I know what’s been going on I can sort things out,’ he told me and I reasoned that if he could get his money back, maybe I could get mine. But for now I was stuck with nothing and by Christmas I was approaching the limit on my overdraft and credit cards.
The bills on the house were all in my name so, in the New Year, with Mark still away on missions and my debts mounting, I moved out of Brock Street and began relying on the goodwill of friends to put me up for short periods.
Increasingly worried, I felt the ‘black dog’ of depression overtake me. Everything was a massive battle and I didn’t want to live. I spent hours on the Internet researching how I could commit suicide. But part of me still clung to the hope that I was overreacting and that my new life with Mark would be all that he kept promising.
He had told me that he was planning to sell Brock Street and that it would complete on April 3, so I cashed in my small pension to pay off my debts and thought that everything would be resolved if I could just keep going until then.
In the meantime, there was no hope of seeing him. MI6 were forcing him back to Syria and he told me that he had been shot again. This time he had sustained heavy blood loss and was recovering in a military hospital in Athens.
April came and there was still no money.
Now he claimed it was because his lawyers believed wrongly that he hadn’t paid outstanding fees and were withholding the proceeds of the Brock Street sale until it was sorted out.
His head was heavily bandaged and some sort of tube was coming out of the side of his head. Now I suspect that his bandages were expertly applied by a doctor I have since discovered he was in a relationship with.
He rang me every day, telling me that he had escaped from the Greek hospital and was on the run from the British authorities who were trying to punish him for his relationship with me. He claimed to be hiding out in Italy but hoped that we could be together soon.
In the meantime, he told me that I must come out to be with him. He would book the tickets — but every day they failed to appear.
That June I reached the limit of my tolerance when he rang to say that a planned trip to see him in Italy was on hold once again.
In desperation, I rang James Miller. I had only met him a couple of times, once when he took me up in that vintage airplane, but I hoped he might be able to provide some information about Mark and reassurance about what I should do. Instead, I found myself stunned by what he said.
‘Carolyn, I’m really sorry but I’ve been having a difficult time with him myself. I’ve found out quite a bit about him that I think you should know.’
I was then staying with an old school friend in Twickenham, South-West London, and two days later I met James in a café there. Over breakfast he told me that his business had almost gone down the pan because of Mark and revealed what he had discovered about his criminal past.
That night, I went to my daughter Lara’s flat in Islington, where my younger daughter Emma joined us. I told them everything and we tried to grapple with the enormity of it all. Later that evening I lay on Lara’s sofa, thinking about Mark and what he had done.
I wanted to die. I felt myself being sucked into the vortex of a black hole as three words spooled around my mind, louder and louder, until I thought I was going to pass out. ‘You f*****g b*****d.’
By morning, I still hadn’t moved from the sofa. Lara and her boyfriend were cooking breakfast when my phone rang.
‘It’s him,’ I told them, as I put my phone on speaker.
‘Baby, I love you so much,’ he said. ‘We’ll be together very soon.’
‘Just give me my money,’ I replied, in a voice that sounded strange to me.
‘You’ll have your money. Everything’s going to be OK.’
‘Just give me my money.’
The line went dead and I never heard from Mark Acklom again.
He rang me every day, telling me that he had escaped from the Greek hospital and was on the run from the British authorities who were trying to punish him for his relationship with me.
I went to the police as soon as I could following my meeting with James, but it took six years to bring Mark to justice in a British courtroom.
During the first six months of 2013, when I’d believed him to be in a military hospital and then on the run in Italy, he was, in fact, in Spain where he had been trying to do more shady business deals. There he was jailed for fraud, but finished his sentence early before a European Arrest Warrant could get him brought back here.
With his name on the list of the UK’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, he was finally arrested and extradited back to the UK in February 2019. That August he appeared in court and pleaded guilty to five charges of fraud.
When I saw him in the dock I was taken aback. He was thinner than when I knew him, wearing a grey hoodie and sporting facial hair, but not the closely trimmed ‘designer stubble’ of 2012. He looked totally unkempt.
In his chameleon-like way he was adopting the persona of an ordinary guy, wearing street clothes to make himself look as young as possible, mumbling as though he was downtrodden and lacking in confidence. It was all a cold, calculated performance designed to convince the court that there was no way that he could ever be taken for a suave multi-millionaire, thereby persuading people that I, not he, was the liar and the fantasist.
The judge was not taken in, sentencing him to five years and eight months. My statement made a difference of an extra four months.
I was glad that Mark would have to spend a few more days behind bars because of it, but more importantly I was pleased that I had let people know the effect that my relationship with him had on me.
I’m sure that as soon as he is released he will return to his old tricks but I just want to forget about him. And while I will never get back my money — I lost every penny of my $1.2 million — my life will always be much richer than his. That’s not least because my meetings with James Miller to discuss the case developed into something more romantic at the end of 2013.
Over the seven years that we have been together, life has been a struggle, but we support each other as best we can and we are now renting a truly lovely house in a beautiful part of Scotland.
We have enjoyed many happy times together and we’re looking forward to many more. Our match may have been made in hell, but we have managed to find our own little corner of paradise and we count our blessings every day.
Carolyn Woods’s Sleeping with a Psychopath is out now