Big Read: 'My mother was victim to one of Europe's most-wanted men'

By Lara Woods

Carolyn Woods speaks out.
Carolyn Woods speaks out.

Lara Woods writes of how her mum Carolyn got involved with one of Europe's most-wanted men and ended up losing everything.

It was the morning of my 27th birthday when my mother called to tell me she was going on a date with a man called Mark. She'd met him the previous day when he'd walked into the Cotswolds boutique where she worked. He tried on a jacket, and charmed her into giving him her phone number.

Mum hadn't had her head turned by a man in an awfully long time. She sounded so excited, it was hard not be happy for her.

A few days later, Mum called me again. Their date had been a roaring success, and Mum told me that she was sure they'd have a relationship and move in together. She had accepted my father's proposal of marriage after only six dates and their marriage lasted 23 years, but even I was taken aback by how quickly things were developing with Mark. I could see there was romance in this recklessness, though.

My parents had divorced in 2003 after growing gradually apart. My Mum, Carolyn, remained in Buckinghamshire until my younger sister and I had finished university, and then decided to move to Tetbury to start afresh.

She was renting a cottage and keeping money from the sale of her house in her bank account until she was ready to buy a new home. She was 54 years' old, living in a new area, with a new job and some new friends. It was the perfect time for a man like Mark to waltz into her life.

On the surface, he appeared to be an extraordinarily wealthy businessman, living a glamorous, jet-set lifestyle. What we know now is everything was a lie. Rather, he was a conman called Mark Acklom (he told us his surname was Conway).

Mark whisked mum off her feet. He took her to Harrods for lavish shopping trips and showered her with expensive gifts. I met up with Mum a few weeks into the relationship and she was simply glowing. Mark had arranged for her to have a haircut at Nicky Clarke's salon and she was dressed in some very elegant and expensive new clothes. My boyfriend asked her if she'd actually had a facelift. "No," she said, "I'm in love..."

Within months, Mum had left the boutique, given up her rented cottage and moved in with Mark to The Circus, one of Bath's most prestigious addresses.

He claimed he owned the house, but it later transpired that he had paid a year's rent upfront with money he'd "borrowed" off Mum.

My sister and I first visited in Easter 2012, along with a few other family members. Mark was supposed to arrive on the Saturday night, but didn't show up until the Sunday morning. He was well-turned out, in expensive designer jeans and a crisp white shirt, sitting with a cup of black coffee, a can of Coca-Cola and smoking a cigarette.

After the briefest introduction, the bragging started - about his wealth and power, about how he could survive on just three hours' sleep a night, and that he could shut down the UK economy with one phone call. He claimed to have been working in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and that he had once had a heart attack, which was "fun" ("I woke up in hospital, pulled the wires out and went straight back to work").

When I asked what he did for a living, he wouldn't be drawn, saying only that "I play with the banks' money".

Later, he told us he was once pulled over by the police for speeding at 200mph on the motorway, only to receive a grovelling apology from the head of the constabulary for wasting his time.

Mark Acklom.
Mark Acklom.

As well as being utterly objectionable, Mark was also foul-mouthed - yet mum sat serenely beside him, as if in a trance.

I took against him, but the picture of extraordinary wealth he painted for himself was very convincing.

The next day, my partner and I decided to ask him a few questions about his behaviour - and he was similarly loathsome. Mum leapt straight to his defence, claiming he had been very nervous to meet us all and under great pressure at work. With hindsight, I am convinced he acted in that way on purpose, to further isolate Mum from us.

In the months that followed, Mum fell deeper and deeper under his spell, becoming a shadow of her former self. He had told her that he was actually an MI6 agent, and given her a barrage of mobile phones on which he might call. She was reluctant to make any plans in case he might fly in after one of his secret missions and want to see her. Day after day, she sat at home, alone, waiting for news. With Mark, everything sounded so far-fetched.

In November 2012, he claimed he was in hospital battling a brain tumour. He wouldn't let mum visit because he said MI6 had banned him from receiving visitors, over fears he would give away official secrets during treatment. He even went to the extent of meeting her in the car park of the Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, his head expertly bandaged and with a drain apparently coming out.

Whenever we spoke to Mum about our concerns, she got defensive. I think it was because she had realised things were unravelling.

In the summer of 2013, everything finally came to light. After Mark told her to meet him in Nice but then never showed up, Mum got hold of the number of one of his contacts, who had discovered Mark's real name.

After that, everything else came out. I convinced Mum to go to the police. She was in a state of shock, and it took an inordinate amount of courage, but to my horror we were turned away by an unsympathetic officer who told us to report the allegations online to Action Fraud.

In the days and weeks that followed, Mum stayed with me in my flat in London and slept on my sofa. It broke my heart to see her lying there in tears as I left for work every morning. In the most awful role-reversal, it felt as if I had become the parent and she had become the child.

The psychological damage that Mark inflicted is difficult to comprehend. He went to such extraordinary lengths to convince her their lives were somehow in danger; sending an accomplice to her house to check for "bugs", turning up in the night in full military combat gear and claiming to have been shot in Syria. The ongoing drama he staged over those 18 months was harrowing and relentless.

Over the past few years, we've done our best to try to get Mum's life back on track, but it's so difficult when you're starting from scratch. We have also discovered that such a trauma brings out the best and the worst in other people. Some, including strangers, have rushed to help, offering Mum a place to stay or financial support; meanwhile, others have turned away and distanced themselves.

People often try to rationalise what's happened to Mum, unable to fathom how somebody could be duped into handing over all that money.

"What a silly woman!" they think. I try to tell them that nothing about this scenario is logical; when you are faced with a clever psychopath like Mark, you stand no chance.

He is currently on the run in Spain - an international arrest warrant has been issued and Mark is accused of defrauding some £850,000. We're hoping that he will eventually be found and arrested. The worst feeling is that he is still out there.
Mum has written a novel about her experiences, and I have adapted it into a screenplay. This is partly because this is such an unbelievable story, but also to try to warn other potential victims. Until he is brought to justice, this is all we can do.

Mum has lost everything: her money, her job, her home, her security, her self-confidence and her belief in the kindness of others. But the one thing he couldn't take away from her was the love of her daughters.

Everything that's happened over the past few years has strengthened our relationship, not broken it. Deep down, we know that this matters more than anything else.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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