Sitting alone in our beautiful $4.2 million Georgian townhouse in Bath, I was watching TV one night when I heard an unfamiliar sound.
I turned the volume down and listened acutely, but everything was quiet so I returned to Homeland, one of many spy shows I had become obsessed with since my fiance Mark confided in me that he worked for MI6.
I had plenty of time to watch them. We were supposed to be living in this house together while work went ahead on the even grander country mansion which was to be our marital home. But his foreign missions and many business interests meant that we had not spent a single night together since meeting six months previously.
On that summer evening in 2012, I had no idea where Mark was, but a few seconds after I’d heard that first noise came the sound of the door brushing over the carpet. I looked up and gasped as he entered the room, dressed in full desert combat gear.
As he came to sit beside me and take me in his arms, I felt the tears welling up. He too looked as though he might cry.
‘Darling, I shouldn’t be here, but I had to come and see you,’ he said. ‘I’ve left a group of men I’m supposed to be training for action in Syria. I can’t stay long.’
He was there no more than ten minutes, and I stood by the window and watched sadly as he jogged away, thinking nothing then of the fact that he was wearing black boots which are not part of desert camouflage.
It was only a year later, when I knew him for the conman he was, that I realized the combat gear had probably been bought from an army surplus shop — part of the elaborate deception by which Mark drained my bank account of $1.2 million, which included the proceeds from the sale of my house.
Champagne and Lobsters
I knew him as Mark Conway, but his real name was Mark Acklom. He was a serial fraudster who first made the headlines in 1991 when, as a 16-year-old, he had stolen his father’s credit card, flown by private jet to Paris and treated his friends to champagne and lobster dinners.
He had subsequently embarked on a criminal career which had seen him jailed for fraud in both the UK and Spain. And, knowing what I know now, I am convinced that he is a psychopath, a social predator with no conscience and an inability to feel love, compassion, guilt or remorse.
Psychopaths are completely lacking in empathy, and their only motivation is self-gratification achieved by the exploitation of others, using both charm and manipulation. Mark subjected me to both and, although it sounds extraordinary looking back, I believed every word he said. He certainly looked the part, and lots of things happened to convince me that he was a real-life James Bond.
When we met, I was a sophisticated, educated 54-year-old — gregarious, full of confidence and enjoying my independence following my divorce nine years previously.
It was only a year later, when I knew him for the conman he was, that I realized the combat gear had probably been bought from an army surplus shop.
My two daughters had flown the nest and, after being made redundant from my job with a pharmaceutical company, I had sold up and moved from Buckinghamshire to the Cotswolds town of Tetbury, where I began working in a stylish clothing and lifestyle shop.
One evening in January 2012, when I was alone in the shop and about to close up for the day, a handsome man walked in.
Later he would tell me that he was 46, but he was in fact 38. He was of medium height and build, with thick brown hair, brown eyes, and a closely trimmed beard and moustache. Impeccably groomed, he was wearing a crisp white shirt with no tie, what looked like a designer suit and designer glasses. He had a continental air about him and exuded confidence.
The atmosphere was electric. He looked straight at me, held my gaze, and smiled as he asked if we had the jacket in the window in his size. We began chatting, interrupted only when my friend Uma popped in and told me about a house she thought I should buy.
After she’d gone, I explained that I had sold my own place and was renting a cottage while I looked for a new property, but it was proving harder than I had anticipated. This signaled to Mark that I was likely to have a temporary surplus of cash in my bank account, but I had no idea he had registered this as we continued talking so easily that I felt I had known him forever.
He told me that he had been married three times, and when I told him I was divorced he asked for my mobile number. I gave it to him, just like that. It was so out of character for me, but he was unlike anybody I had ever met before.
The next evening we went for a drink at a hotel in a nearby village, sipping champagne by the hearth in the library. The setting was utterly romantic and I was flattered when he told me that he had flown back from Geneva that evening to see me. Claiming to have been educated at Eton and Oxford, he said he was a tax exile who worked for the Swiss bank UBS but came back to the UK for some projects of his own.
He spared no detail of his lifestyle: luxury homes all over the world, tables available at a moment’s notice in the best restaurants, expensive everything. He liked only ‘the best’ and he had the money to pay for it.
When I look back, I realize just how much people take on trust. I had never indulged in internet dating for fear of not knowing who I would be dealing with. But it never occurred to me that in ‘real-life’ encounters you can be deceived just as easily.
I was also unprepared for the love-bombing commonly used by psychopaths, moving a relationship on at such a pace that the victim is left dazzled and disoriented.
In those turbulent early days, I hardly had time to draw breath. The first time we made love, two days after we met, Mark pulled himself away from me, telling me that it was a ‘****ing nightmare’.
‘I’m falling in love with you,’ he murmured. ‘This is insane. You know I have never truly loved or been loved by anyone before.’
Almost immediately we were calling each other by the pet name ‘Bubba’ and he would send texts saying ‘You are so beautiful’ and ‘You are perfect for me’.
One evening, four days after we met, we drove to the nearby village of Culkerton and as we pulled up outside West End Farm, an empty house with high wooden electric gates, he told me he was thinking of renting it for us.
‘This is insane. You know I have never truly loved or been loved by anyone before.’
My jaw dropped. ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ he said. ‘We’re going to live together. It’s what we both want. There’s no point wasting time.’ Somehow, he had got the entry code to the gates, and although we couldn’t get inside the house we looked through the windows. I liked it and I liked the idea of moving in with Mark — even if he was always flying off somewhere.
At first I assumed this was because of his commitments with UBS. One morning he told me that he was going to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss town of Davos for the day, but he soon revealed that his job with UBS was in fact a cover for his work with MI6.
This did not altogether surprise me thanks to some seeds he had carefully planted on the first date, telling me that he flew his own plane, spoke seven languages and had a photographic memory.
His problem was that secret agents weren’t supposed to be in serious relationships and MI6 would make his life very difficult if he stayed with me. It would take him 18 months to get out of his contract, and meanwhile he wanted me to stand by him and be strong. I assured him that I would, unaware that the real reason he often turned up late for our dates or not at all was that he had a wife and two young daughters, and was living with them in Bathampton, about 25 miles south of Tetbury.
I should have listened to a girlfriend of mine. When I told her how little I was able to see of Mark, she said he was obviously married. But the spy story was lent credence when, on a trip to London, he asked his assistant Paul to drive us towards the MI6 building in Vauxhall. We turned into a side street. Ahead I could see the entrance to an underground car park, and two guards armed with what looked like machine guns.
‘Wait for me here,’ he ordered. ‘It shouldn’t take long.’ Walking unchallenged past the guards, he disappeared into the building, reappearing 25 minutes later. Who the armed men were I still have no clue; nor do I understand how anyone who wasn’t a bona fide guard could get anywhere near MI6 headquarters but, although it must have been staged, it was utterly convincing.
Once I believed that Mark worked for MI6, everything was so outside my realm of experience that I took whatever he said about it on trust. There were a lot of people who would like him dead, he warned, and although he promised that my life was not in danger, he insisted that it was only sensible to maximise my security.
Changing his own cars regularly, he ‘bought’ me a Volvo XC60 SUV — later I would discover it was leased — the first of several new cars he provided for me. He also gave me a new iPhone and MacBook Air laptop, telling me that he would have remote access to everything on them. ‘It’s to protect us both,’ he said, but it was all part of taking control of my life in readiness for the scam to come.
The real reason he often turned up late for our dates or not at all was that he had a wife and two young daughters.
This began when he announced that he wanted to live at Widcombe Manor instead — a beautiful Grade I listed manor house set in stunning grounds on the outskirts of Bath. He refused to let me visit it before renovations were complete — he wanted it to be a surprise — but he ensured that less than a month after I’d met him I overheard a phone conversation in which he discussed a temporary cash-flow problem concerning payment of the contractors.
Since I had money just sitting in my bank account, I asked how much he was short and offered him the $36,700 he mentioned. At first he declined, but then he agreed to the smaller sum of $31,000.
This clever move persuaded me that he would not take advantage of me — after all, in that first transaction he could have had another $5,600 — and it was the first of 70 transfers which in the coming months would total just over $1 million.
I wasn’t thinking straight. That’s what falling in love does to you. It’s a kind of madness which takes your eye off the ball, and my false sense of security was encouraged by Mark’s elaborate charades.
He also gave me a new iPhone and MacBook Air laptop, telling me that he would have remote access to everything on them. ‘It’s to protect us both,’ he said.
A couple of days after I’d transferred the $31,000, he told me he had to go away on a dangerous mission to Iran. He phoned me from the cockpit of his jet as he awaited take-off, and I spent the night fearing for his safety and wondering if I would ever see him again.
The following morning, I saw a car emerging out of the mist and making its way down the drive. It was Mark — he’d come straight to see me on his return.
He went upstairs, and from the kitchen I overheard him on the phone. He asked for a secure line, quoted encryption numbers and identification codes, then, addressing the person at the other end as ‘Sir’, he said that the mission had been successful.
He must be talking to someone very high up in national security, I told myself — maybe even the Foreign Secretary himself.
That same month, he claimed to be in ‘cabinet meetings’ in Madrid and that he was off to Whitehall to ‘stop a war’. He told me he knew Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton, and once interrupted our love-making to take a call he said was from the King of Spain.
It was the first of 70 transfers which in the coming months would total just over $1 million.
In among all this we fitted in more trips to London. One began with Mark picking me up in a helicopter. I don’t know whose helicopter it was but he always had some surprise or other up his sleeve.
On another visit, he told me he was friends with the celebrated hairstylist Nicky Clarke and had arranged for me to have an appointment with ‘one of his proteges’. ‘Forget your old life. You’re going up a few notches,’ he said.
He told me that if I was going to be with him I would have to look the part, and helped me pick out clothes at Chanel and Harrods. He knew the latter like the back of his hand, and seemed well acquainted with some of the sales assistants.
Everything was beautiful and ridiculously expensive, but I was going to have to get used to that.
Along the way, Mark needed some cufflinks, a lead for the golden retriever puppy he had shown me photographs of and was having trained, and a whole ham from Harrods’ food hall costing $2100.
Whenever we went to pay, he just looked straight at me and I mutely produced my banker’s card.
He told me he knew Vladimir Putin and Hillary Clinton, and once interrupted our love-making to take a call he said was from the King of Spain.
Mark said he would pay me back once the cash-flow problem had been sorted. Along with the transfers he’d persuaded me to make, I was eventually owed around $1.2 million but I never doubted him. This, after all, was the man I was to marry.
We’d talked about that very early on. Mark had hoped that we would be able to go to Paris to have the dress made by Karl Lagerfeld, supposedly a friend of his, but decided there just wasn’t time.
Instead, he made an appointment at the exclusive Caroline Castigliano showroom in Knightsbridge where I chose a beaded fishtail number. It was in line with the fairy-tale ceremony Mark had planned.
My hair was to be done by Nicky Clarke himself and the wedding was to be held at Widcombe Manor. Later there was to be a sound and light show with musicians and fireworks.
Whenever we went to pay, he just looked straight at me and I mutely produced my banker’s card.
It was never to be. One day Mark explained that there were problems with security at Widcombe Manor. Because of its Grade I listing, the windows couldn’t be fitted with bullet-proof glass and he felt the property was too exposed.
While we were looking for somewhere else, he suggested that we should move into the townhouse in Bath, and as I was having my final dress fitting I was overcome with the feeling that the wedding was never going to happen.
I feared that I might end up like Miss Havisham, a tragic figure in a beautiful but tattered gown but, as I will explain in next Saturday’s issue of Air Mail, a broken heart was the least of my problems as my relationship with that psychopathic conman Mark Acklom took twists and turns which threatened my very life.
Carolyn Woods’s Sleeping with a Psychopath is out now