Sara Terry claims she wasn’t really looking for someone to love when she agreed to her friends’ suggestions to try internet dating.
But when an email landed in her inbox from a man who seemed to be her mirror image, she admits her pulse began to race.
They had a similar view of life, enjoyed the same sports and both were dog owners with much-loved Labradors.
So it was no surprise that, when she met Peter Berry a few weeks later, his charm, wit, impeccable manners and soft green-blue eyes melted her heart.
What’s more, the feeling seemed mutual. ‘Wow!’ he texted her straight after they parted. ‘I cannot believe we have so much in common.’
Within a couple of weeks he had proposed marriage and moved in. ‘I felt I had met the right man,’ she says. ‘He was so warm and funny.’
Today, eight months later, she is alone, a stone lighter and £35,000 the poorer, a victim of one of the most prolific fraudsters ever to be dragged before the British courts.
For 20 years Peter Berry has made a specialty of preying on single women in their 30s and 40s.
sites he seduced then fleeced them.
The total amount of money he has stolen is incalculable, much like the scale of emotional damage he has wreaked.
No one knows how many women he has conned, either, but the victims probably number in the hundreds.
So peculiarly unpleasant is his style of operation that most of them remained silent out of embarrassment.
He took £35,000 from his first wife and left his second, the mother of his child, bankrupt. She is now in hiding to avoid contact with his family.
Berry has helped himself to five-figure sums from fiancees in America and girlfriends in Europe, including £28,000 from a girlfriend in Tayside.
He has even taken £100,000 from his mother. Nothing, it seemed, could stop him, as he moved from city to city, country to country in search of fresh victims – until, that is, Sara Terry decided to take him on.
With the help of the police in Cornwall, she mounted a dogged pursuit of a man who also uses the names John Keady, Taz Keady and even sometimes calls himself ‘doctor’.
Last month, he appeared at Truro Crown Court pleading guilty to eight counts of deception and fraud involving eight separate victims, including Sara.
The investigating officers believe this is just the tip of the iceberg.
‘There could be hundreds more victims,’ says Detective Constable Derek Farrow, who led the case against Berry.
‘Many, who are high-powered lawyers, GPs, fund managers, senior civil servants and businesswomen, haven’t wanted to press charges in case it affected their careers.
‘I believe that Berry is an accomplished, cold and calculating villain who could easily have taken more than £1million.
‘He is just brilliant at gaining people’s confidence and creating an image of a successful, affluent man.’
So brilliant, in fact, that he even persuaded someone like Sara. An articulate and attractive 42-year-old divorcee, she would not seem an obvious ‘victim’.
Like many women of her age, though, she is fully occupied. She looks after her young children on the South Coast and works in a chandler’s.
So, like countless others, she found it easier to click on a dating website at a time which suited rather than attempt to meet suitable men in crowded bars or clubs.
This is how she found herself on a website called Fitness Singles in October 2008.
‘I love challenging sports and thought I would meet a more genuine person than someone who just wanted a date or two,’ she says with a rueful smile.
‘I didn’t upload any photographs on my profile but said I enjoyed sailing, horse riding and had a dog.
'Pete emailed that he was 40 – he was actually three years older – a very successful business consultant and interested in the same sports as me.
'He even had a photograph of him sailing on his profile.’
After weeks of increasingly chatty emails, Sara agreed on a date at nearby Langstone Harbour, along the coast from Portsmouth.
Physically he was no Casanova. ‘He was 6ft 2in, weighed about 20 stone and looked like the cartoon character Shrek,’ she says.
‘But he had such warm eyes, we had so much to talk about, he was so interested in me that, to my surprise, I found him very attractive.
‘He was attentive, flattering and very funny, which are all the qualities a woman likes.’
A second meeting, a walk on a beach with their two Labradors, went even better and on the third date he asked if he could come to her home, a detached property in a picturesque Hampshire village.
He also told her that although he was in Cornwall looking after his widowed mother, he was planning to relocate to Hampshire to be closer to London and his work.
‘I agreed because the children were spending the day with their father,’ she says.
‘Then, late in the afternoon, he told me he was asthmatic and having trouble breathing.
‘He said that he didn’t have very good lungs because he had fallen out of boats so many times and that if he went to hospital he knew from experience they would keep him in for at least a week, which would wreck a business deal.
'Nor was he well enough to drive five hours to Cornwall. He even started crying as he said “please don’t make me go”.’
She shrugs. ‘I agreed he could stay and for the next five days he had me running around after him. We shared a bed, but didn’t have sex.
'He also said he wanted to marry me and I felt really excited. We had so many common interests, I felt I had met the right man.’
Why did this remarkable turn of events fail to ring alarm bells? She has no ready answer, although it is possible that, in her heart, she really wanted to settle down, and shut her eyes to the danger signs.
'He also said he wanted to marry me and I felt really excited.’
She continues: ‘He then left for Cornwall but returned a few days later and just moved in. I didn’t question it because he overwhelmed me by organising one activity after another.
'I wasn’t working at the time and he said he was enjoying a break after several successful business deals so we spent lots of time sailing.
‘He taught me how to kayak, which I loved. He also said he wanted to buy a house for us and we went round looking at several £3million-plus properties.
'I admit that I was smitten and quite overcome.’
It was during this time that she slept with him. But shortly afterwards he began giving her mixed messages.
‘On the one hand he was tactile, but then told me he had a low sex drive and kept making excuses for us not to be physically together.
'He talked about his strong Catholic background, which I later discovered had been exaggerated, and also claimed his eczema was playing up and that it was painful to touch me.
'I didn’t like to make a fuss as there are more important things than sex, but I was also concerned as I didn’t want a non-physical relationship.
‘He began going out in the evening. He told me he was attending business meetings but I later discovered he was seeing other women.’
Just before Christmas 2008, she took her children on a family holiday with her former husband, a property developer, but agreed that Berry could stay in the house. Worse still, she lent him her credit card.
‘I had asked him several times what he wanted as a Christmas present but it was only late on Christmas Eve that he finally suggested a kayak.
I thought it was a brilliant idea but as I didn’t have time to sort one out suggested he did the research and put the cost on my credit card.’
Not only did he buy a kayak he also took out an annual subscription to Zoosk, another online dating site.
‘He also managed to work out details of my two bank accounts,’ she says.
‘He phoned the bank while I was away, pretending to be me, and put up my credit limit.
Because I use direct debit as much as possible I wasn’t in the habit of checking my bank statements, something I now realise was quite wrong.’
'I know not to sign something you don’t read but we were engaged and living together so I did.'
On her return, he became more daring, claiming he wanted to take her on an adventure holiday for her birthday.
‘He said I had to sign a personal liability disclaimer for the travel company but wouldn’t show me the details as he wanted to keep the destination secret.
'I know not to sign something you don’t read but we were engaged and living together so I did.
'I later discovered it was a loan application to the bank for £15,000.’ She is currently paying it off at £400 a month for 47 months.
In mid-April, her purse and credit cards went missing and she at last became suspicious.
On impulse she rang to check the balance on her current accounts and credit cards.
‘I was told that each of my two bank accounts was about £1,000 overdrawn and that I owed about £9,000 on my credit cards.
I felt my whole life had stopped. I immediately cancelled the cards and when the bank employee said, “What about the loan?” I replied, “What loan?” When they told me I could hardly speak.
'All I could think of was how was I going to feed my children. I then rang Berry who gave me a long explanation of a business deal that went wrong and how he would pay me back handsomely “any moment now”.
'I felt such a fool and for the next two months stayed at home feeling depressed and ill.
‘I gave him time because I thought if I kicked him out straight away I would have no chance of getting my money back. By mid-June I’d had enough.’
She then did what so few of his victims had dared to do before, and complained to the police.
‘I told them what had happened and arranged to call 999 when he next showed up,’ says Sara.
‘When he did, they came to arrest him and all he said when they marched him off was to ask me to look after his dog. I haven’t seen him since.’
She then did some investigation of her own. ‘I got in touch with the people who had been with us on kayaking trips and all the friends on his Facebook account, and told them about what had happened.
Men and women came back to me and I discovered that at least three women were involved with him at the same time as me and had also lost money.’
He had, for example, taken nearly £15,000 from Mabel Arnhill, a 32-year-old businesswoman and member of his kayaking club.
Berry called himself Dr Teady and, promising to buy her a kayak, got her credit card details and emptied the account.
Sara found herself working alongside Detective Constable Derek Farrow in Saltash near Plymouth and it is thanks to his research and Sara’s bravery that Berry has finally been convicted.
Up until 2008 a few women had reported him to their local police.
But the complaints were treated as isolated incidents and, with Berry moving around, nothing was done – as Lynne Martin, Berry’s former girlfriend from Tayside, knows only too well.
She reported him after losing the best part of £30,000, but got nowhere.
Lynne, now 40, says: ‘He was a real seducer. He’s very good at it. But I think career women are more vulnerable.
'When men put a lot into their work and don’t have partners or children they are admired, whereas women feel under pressure to have it all and get anxious about finding a partner while they are of child-bearing age.
'If you say you are interested in something he, chameleon-like, says he is too.
‘I reported him to the police but here in Scotland they said it was a civil matter and took no interest.
'I took out a private prosecution which I won, but I haven’t been able to get my money back.
'I felt so awful that initially I was suicidal and lost all my trust in people. It has taken me a long time to recover, but I have finally found someone I believe I can rely on.’
Between 2008 and April of this year DC Farrow has been tracking Berry’s victims all round the world.
He has spoken to Berry’s sister – who has disowned him – and Berry’s mother, herself a victim of his fraud.
Much about Berry remains unfathomable, such as how he has spent the vast sums he defrauded, what has driven him to destroy the lives of those around him, or why it is women he chooses to humiliate.
No one from Berry’s family was willing to comment. But close family friends are mystified by his behaviour.
His upbringing is understood to have been warm and loving. Berry was born in Callington, Cornwall, and at six months was adopted by a naval medic and his wife.
On leaving school at 16 he got a job in the naval dockyards in Plymouth. But that was a brief stay, and he has never been able to hold down a regular job since.
There may be some light shed on this question when he is back in the dock for sentencing in two weeks’ time.
Berry might well be jailed, but it is unlikely to be a long sentence.
Although still suffering from anxiety, Sara seems to be recovering.
‘At first I was very cross with myself but I have fought against becoming bitter and untrusting,’ she says.
‘I admit I was naive, but there isn’t a law against that. He, not me, should feel embarrassed about what he has done.’
Although, she feels, there is little chance of that.