Years after her long-term boyfriend suddenly vanished without a trace in 2000, Alison* had one dominant theory for what had happened to him.
Not that he was a drug dealer. Nor that he had a secret family – which, incidentally, he did. Alison was convinced that the man she knew as Mark Cassidy was a spy.
And he was, in fact, a kind of spy. His real name was Mark Jenner and he was an undercover officer in Britain's Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a secretive branch of the Metropolitan Police, which is implicated in one of the biggest scandals in recent British history.
Jenner was among at least 21 undercover officers who had intimate relationships with more than 36 women.
Alison is one of seven women who feature in a new Telegraph podcast series, Bed of Lies. It tells the story of how British officers tasked by the Met Police with infiltrating left-wing political groups had relationships with people they were spying on over the course of 40 years.
These weren't just fleeting encounters, but long-term romances in which marriage was discussed and, in some cases, into which children were born.
Next week, the UK's Undercover Policing Inquiry begins evidence hearings in its investigation into the actions of 139 officers, including Jenner, from the SDS and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) who were in the field.
"At the time, everyone told me I was mad," says Alison. Her brother, the main sceptic, was scornful, saying things like, "Why would someone be spying on your little tinpot organisation in Hackney? You're not exactly the Zapatistas, are you?"
But Alison – who had met Jenner when she was a 29-year-old member of the Colin Roach Centre, a north London organisation that fought police corruption and brutality against black men – wasn't going mad.
The man she had lived with for five years, planned her future with and taken to couples' counselling when things started going awry, had been ordered to spy on groups in London, including at the Colin Roach Centre.
"These police operations infiltrated our most private lives," says Alison (who has legal anonymity in the UK). "And it wasn't just us, but those of our families and close friends, too."
Over the past six months, I have interviewed many women affected by the undercover policing scandal. Alison, in her role as a support worker for the campaign group Police Spies Out of Lives, has sat through endless Zoom calls in which we have pored over every detail of the women's most painful memories. Stories that are eerily similar to her own.
"It doesn't matter how many times I hear them, the stories are always shocking," says Alison. "There are always things that make me reflect on my experience."
Alison met Jenner, now 57, at the Colin Roach Centre in 1994. He wore brushed-cotton lumberjack shirts, an earring in one ear, and had close-cropped hair with a "little scraggy ponytail down the back".
A joiner with his own van, he ingratiated himself with the group by giving lifts. "He was open, friendly and interested in people," says Alison.
An English and media studies teacher from north London, Alison spent evenings and weekends at the centre, organising campaigns against police corruption in Stoke Newington. She describes herself as "the person who would make tea for the people on the picket line".
Surrounded by staunch Labour Party members and anarchists, she was never that earnest herself – a trait she also found appealing in Jenner.
"Mark was irreverent. We used to joke about the People's Republic of Hackney, like the People's Republic of Tooting, with Wolfie Smith," she says, referring to late-70s BBC comedy series Citizen Smith, in which Robert Lindsay plays a self-styled urban revolutionary.
Within weeks of starting to date, Jenner moved in with Alison. "I think one of the reasons we lasted so long is because of the conventionality," she says. "It's a police officer with a teacher – a very conventional set-up. Although my politics were radical, a lot of my lifestyle appealed to him."
They worked regular nine-to-five days, coming home to watch Coronation Street together. In the holidays, they went away – camping in the UK and travelling around Thailand, Vietnam and Israel.
They had Friday-night dinners with her family and he attended her mother's wedding. The family liked and trusted him. "People thought he was good for me," she says. "He was very 'steady Eddie', seemingly sensible and capable."
Jenner's own family, he said, were "complicated", so she never met them. And he'd just moved to London from Birkenhead when they met, so he didn't have friends to introduce her to.
Alison once joked, "You're not a copper are you?" because he arrived in her life out of nowhere. But she never had any real suspicions about him.
They would go to the Colin Roach Centre a couple of times a week, but over time Jenner became more involved in politics than Alison. He was a dedicated member of the building workers' union, UCATT, and Red Action, which was known for violent confrontations with the far right.
Alison remembers seeing him on the news after he fought fascists, and hearing how he faced up to a man on a motorbike across a picket line. Like other undercover officers, he didn't appear to hold back when it came to getting involved.
Three years in, in 1998, Alison wanted to start a family. The couple were in their 30s, with a joint income and a two-bedroom flat, but Jenner was resistant. "We had a future together, as far as I was concerned," she says. "Surely children were one of the options?"
Eventually, she decided they needed to go for couples' counselling with Relate to try to resolve the issue. "If he had turned around to me and said, 'I absolutely don't want children, but I think we should buy a mobile home and go travelling around America for five years,' then I might have done that, but he came up with no alternative."
Their 18 months in therapy would come to feel particularly galling when Alison discovered who her partner really was.
Around the start of the new millennium, Jenner claimed his grandfather had had a stroke and his behaviour changed. "He was depressed," says Alison. "He was working harder and was very withdrawn." She now knows this was because he was being removed from the undercover operation.
Then, one evening at the end of March 2000, she came home to an empty flat. On the table was a handwritten letter. "I realised immediately that he'd left me," she recalls. "In it, he said, 'When I said I loved you, I meant it. There was never anybody else. We want different things and I've got to go.' I was hysterical. I phoned him and begged him to come back."
He returned for just over a week, apologetic but still distant. They talked and cried – Alison thought they were patching things up. Then, he vanished for good.
He cleared out the flat meticulously and scrubbed his relatives' numbers from Alison's address book before he left. She's reticent about that time now, but she was distraught.
Family members remember her crying and walking around in a daze. "I realised he didn't want me to find him," she says. "It was like a hollow shell – there was nothing there I could hold on to."
'Full Miss Marple mode'
In the years that followed, Alison searched tirelessly for Jenner, combing through the family records office in London and seeking the help of a private detective.
It soon became clear that Mark Cassidy was a fictional character – there was no record of him or his relatives anywhere. With every month that passed, her despair was replaced with a determination to find out who he was and where he'd gone. "I went into full Miss Marple mode," she says.
Thinking back to how he came out of nowhere and didn't introduce her to any family, she became convinced that he was a spy. Eventually, in 2003, with the help of some well-placed friends at the Home Office, Alison learnt that the passport issued in the name of 'Mark Cassidy' had been requested by Special Branch.
His real name was Mark Jenner, and he was an undercover officer for the Met Police (the inquiry confirmed this in April 2018).
"I had found out enough for myself," says Alison. Enough to convince her family she wasn't mad. She didn't expect to find out any more – but the story was only just beginning.
Looking back at the goodbye letter Jenner wrote to Alison – in which he says, "There was never anybody else" – she now feels a deep sense of irony. Not only can she see the similarities to the goodbye letters sent to other women by undercover officers, but she knows how truly disingenuous it was.
Because Jenner, the man she went to couples' counselling with, was in fact married with three children.
"His third child was born about six months into our relationship," says Alison. "It's beyond hideous. When he was getting up at 6.30am and coming home at 5.30pm, I think he was actually going home to his real family."
It has since emerged that Jenner was also in counselling with his wife during the period when he was seeing a therapist with Alison.
In 2011, news broke that another undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, now 51, had spent years living as an activist in Nottingham.
He had been at the heart of countless environmental protests and had more than one intimate relationship. Hearing his story, Alison saw a connection with her own experience – and started to realise the full scope of the Met's infiltration of left-wing groups. This would become clearer once the women came together to fight a historic legal case.
Kennedy, known then as Mark Stone, arrived on the eco-activism scene in Nottingham in 2003, armed with a van and a pair of Oakley sunglasses. On one of the regular climbing trips he'd take with his new friends, he met Lisa*, then 31, who would become his partner of six years.
They protested in Iceland, holidayed in Italy and, when her father died, he was in the mourners' car at the funeral. Kennedy was a central member of the environmental movement of which Lisa was a part, helping to organise blockades against big corporates, and getting involved in plans to interfere with the work of power stations.
"He was the closest person in my life," says Lisa. "He was the person I talked to about everything. He was by my side when I was grieving for my father. There was absolutely no way I had suspicions."
On holiday in 2010, Lisa discovered that his passport wasn't in the name Stone, but Kennedy. She also found a phone, which had emails from two children calling him Dad. She was dumbfounded.
"I could imagine a million explanations for somebody changing their name," she says. "But having a child that you hadn't told me about? That was jaw-dropping."
When confronted, he told her a wild story of how he used to be a drug smuggler and, after his friend was shot, he had become the de facto parent to two children, from whom he was now estranged. It sounded crazy, but she desperately wanted to believe him – and the truth was even more far-fetched.
Lisa nevertheless had questions about who her boyfriend was, and the name on his passport was a clue. She trawled ancestry records until she found birth certificates for his children, aged four and two when his undercover mission began in 2002, which listed their father's profession as "police officer".
"It felt like a part of me had been ripped out," says Lisa. "My belief in romantic love was destroyed. A numbness took hold."
The Kennedy story became a media frenzy after Lisa and her friends published it online. Senior police tried to claim he was a rogue officer who had gone beyond the parameters of his mission, and he hired notorious publicist Max Clifford to help convey his version of events.
But there was enough information in the hands of the women to ensure a cover-up wouldn't last. Details revealed by whistleblower Peter Francis, a former member of the SDS, showed the scandal ran far deeper than Kennedy.
A pattern of tactics
It's now known that Jenner and Kennedy were respectively part of the Met Police's SDS – formed in 1968 in response to unrest over the Vietnam War – and NPOIU, which was set up in 1999 and focused on animal rights and green activists.
The secretive units spied on more than 1000 political groups, including justice groups run by bereaved families, such as the Stephen Lawrence campaign, political movements like anti-poll tax protests, environmental groups and trade unions.
It is not clear how many convictions have resulted from this work, but a number have since been overturned. After it emerged that Kennedy was an undercover officer, a case against 26 protesters, charged with conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, collapsed in 2011.
Kennedy had helped to organise the action. Charges were dropped against six people, while another 20 were exonerated at appeal. It has been reported that Kennedy alone cost the taxpayer around £250,000 a year in wages and expenses when he was undercover.
Only when the stories are placed alongside one another do you see a pattern of tactics. The majority of undercover officers had wives and children, who the police thought would prevent them from going native.
Two officers' real wives – now ex-wives – have said they feel betrayed by their former husbands and the police. They will share their stories at the inquiry. There were also a handful of female undercover officers, three of whom are known to have had relationships with men they were spying on.
A group of eight women, including Alison and Lisa, brought a legal case against the Met Police. In 2015, seven settled out of court were paid "substantial" compensation and received an unprecedented apology from the Met over the "gross violation", which, it said, "should never have happened".
The following year, the eighth won her case. Further legal cases brought by other women have dragged on for years with no result. This month the Met apologised to a man who was fathered by undercover officer Bob Lambert. The man, known as TBS, had believed his father was an absent left-wing activist until he was 26.
'Was he sent to target me?'
Announced by former UK PM Theresa May in 2015, the victims hope the Undercover Policing Inquiry will finally give them answers. Lisa, for one, wants to know: "Who knew I was in a relationship with Mark Kennedy? Who oversaw him? And crucially, was he deliberately sent to target me?"
Alison says, "We want to see all the reports these officers wrote about us. We want to see the evidence of our lives tracked by the people we were in relationships with."
Ultimately, they want intimate undercover relationships to be criminalised in the UK. The College of Policing says its guidelines have been strictly tightened. "[The relationships] weren't acceptable and the guidance now says it won't be authorised as part of an operation," says David Tucker, its head of crime and criminal justice.
"We think there are almost no circumstances in which it would be appropriate for an undercover police officer to have a relationship while performing their duty."
But there is still a loophole that will let officers have a sexual relationship if their cover is put at risk.
The SDS was wound down in 2008, but the NPOIU still exists in some form as part of the Met's domestic-extremism operations. There's nothing to say such work has been terminated, and secrecy still shrouds counter-terror policing.
There are yet to be any consequences for senior police, but further wrongdoing could be exposed. Earlier this year, the Independent Office for Police Conduct said officers within the Met had shredded some documents it was told to preserve.
The scandal hasn't yet run its course. Over the past three years, the inquiry has released the cover names of 69 out of 139 undercover officers. With each new name comes a new revelation.
'How dare they?'
In 2018, Sara*, 54, received a call from the Home Office – they had a sensitive letter to hand-deliver.
The letter said her ex-boyfriend, James Straven (whose real name is yet to be made public), had been identified by the inquiry as an undercover officer for the SDS. They had split up 18 years earlier.
She had thought he was, like her, passionate about animal rights and protecting the environment, but it turned out that he was using her hunt saboteur group to get access to the more extreme Animal Liberation Front.
"I burst into tears," says Sara. "Then anger came. How dare they? There was also relief that I wasn't going mad, because I did used to question myself [about James]. It never made sense."
James had bleached-blond hair – "a bit of a Rod Stewart hairdo" – and a dry sense of humour. "He was nicknamed James Blond, because he dyed his hair so appallingly. Then 007 was tacked on. So he was James Blond 007, which is really annoying now."
James told Sara that he'd had a troubled childhood, involving abuse, and that he had three children, whom he kept separate from his activist life. He worked as a film location scout, so travelled a lot for work, but was always in touch with Sara.
She doesn't know how much of this is true – she has been told his real name, but more information is yet to emerge about his life beyond his undercover role. After a year together, James asked for their relationship to become platonic – they stayed friends and even went to India together for a week after breaking up.
No police officers have faced charges from the Crown Prosecution Service over these intimate relationships.
And only one is known to have faced misconduct charges within the Met Police: Jim Boyling, 55, a former officer with the SDS and detective constable in Counter Terrorism Command, who was found guilty of gross misconduct for having a long-term intimate relationship using his cover identity, hiding it from superiors and disclosing police secrets.
He was dismissed from the police but, like most of the undercovers who had relationships, he is believed to have kept his police pension. Some of these officers were promoted or went into training and academia. Others, like Kennedy, took their skills to the private sector.
For Lisa, Alison, Sara and the other women who were tricked into these relationships, the lasting consequences are severe. Many have experienced symptoms of PTSD and find it difficult to trust.
Lisa believes Kennedy robbed her of the chance to have children. Alison withdrew from activism after she discovered the level of deception and took solace in the Jewish community, where she reconnected with a friend from childhood, whom she married. She has two children.
"'I'm not sure anyone can ever really put something like this completely in the past," says Alison. "And I'm not sure I'd want to. Lots of good has come from it – we've exposed things that would have stayed secret."
Alison and the other women – who live across the UK, in London, Liverpool, Wales and Somerset – have joined together to push for justice. "We have been very active in fighting back, piecing bits together and exposing it," she says.
She and Lisa are releasing a book next year with four others, called Deep Deception: The Story of the Spycops Network by the Women Who Uncovered the Shocking Truth.
As the inquiry begins to hear evidence, they are more than ready to face up to the police – and their deceitful ex-boyfriends.
* Some names have been changed
• Bed of Lies is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts