Thursday, June 28, 2012

This Doesn't Happen to People Like Me

By Lesley-ann Jones

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is not amused - and in this case it is no mere figure of speech.

Sitting at home in the Regency spa town famous for its Jaeger-clad Hyacinths and Daphnes, Caroline Gates-Fleming can only laugh at the irony. ‘I am one of them, really,’ she says, dabbing gingerly at the tender scars of a recent facelift.
Caroline Gates-Fleming at her home in Tunbridge Wells. 'Things like this don't happen to women like me."

‘Middle-class, middle-aged, respectable. I was brought up nicely and married well. Our boys went to public school. But after what I’ve been through, I know they’d find me unacceptable around here. Things like this don’t happen to women like me.’

She has a point. For in Caroline’s case, ‘things like this’ means dabbling in fraud and embracing folly on such an epic scale that even her close family struggles to comprehend. ‘Everyone asks how could I have been so stupid,’ she sighs. ‘I got more than I bargained for.’
How could she fall in love with a foreigner on the internet and then, despite his many and obvious lies, entrust him with £40,000, money she will never see again?

In fairness, Caroline, now 54, has the honesty and intelligence to talk about her motives and the loneliness which is at the root of her current predicament. Similar to many women of her age, with two failed marriages behind her, she badly wanted the comfort of a relationship.

‘What woman doesn’t worry about growing older?’ she asks. ‘It’s not just about looks. Confidence evaporates. Builders no longer wolf-whistle. When you have always attracted men, invisibility hits hard. It’s in the genes: my late mother Pauline was always glamorous. I won’t even pop to the shops without full make-up.’

As a young woman, Caroline had worked as a jobbing stage actress and dancer, and all that theatrical attention, she admits, had made her rather vain. Later in life, she turned her hand to property development, buying, renovating and selling cottages with some success. ‘Coming to terms with ageing is my problem. I need reassurance from a man,’ she says. ‘I was unhappy alone, and shattered by having brought up three boys. ‘Marcus, my first husband and father of Piers, my eldest [now 24], was long gone. Peter, my second husband, father of Rupert and Theo [19 and 18] had little to do with us.’

Craving a fresh start, in 2002 she moved to Marbella in Spain, where, rather romantically, she thought she might meet a new partner. ‘I still craved that special someone to say, “Want a cup of tea? Let’s have a cuddle,” ’ she says. ‘It is not about sex, but togetherness.’

But she never really settled and returned to Britain after four years, depression having kicked in, and in need of a job. If glamour has always been a watchword for Caroline, she was still not too proud to take on ‘unattractive’ jobs and found work as a full-time carer for people with learning disabilities. Her stores of confidence, though, were dwindling. ‘I was still alone, still desperately unhappy,’ she says. ‘I wanted to be flattered and taken out. But it’s so much harder to meet men when you are older. My girlfriends were all married. I had to do something. I’m not the kind to wait for things to happen. They say you learn from your mistakes, but I’ve made the same mistakes with the same kind of men my entire life.’

So when, in August last year, Caroline came across Match.com, a high-profile dating website, the temptation to sign up was overwhelming. It felt safe and respectable, she says, and, after all, ‘you had to pay’ to join. At first she was conservative, making sure her meetings took place in coffee bars during the daytime, but she soon found that her ‘dates’ were on the cautious side, too. ‘There was never that spark,’ she explains, flicking at the pink tips of her bleached blonde crop. ‘I began to find men my age too old for me. I don’t feel like a woman in her 50s. I fight it. I’ve had a gastric band and a facelift.’

Then she came across a man she calls Sab, who seemed so very different from the run-of-the-mill men she had been meeting. ‘Of course, his name is really Steve,’ she says, of the man she now understands is a Nigerian called Stephen Ehiamhen. ‘I call him Sab because, when he first advertised on the site, he called himself Sabastine Roland. He used a fake picture and posed as a Greek, claiming to be an entrepreneur in Nigeria.’

Caroline accepts that even the earliest signs were dubious.

‘He was vague about his age,’ she says. ‘First it was 47, then 37. He told me that when he applied for a visa to travel to South Africa, he had been advised to say 27 so that he could make out he was a student going to the World Cup. ‘After two emails, he phoned. I knew the moment I heard him that he wasn’t Greek.’

In fact, while ‘Sab’s’ English was limited, he most certainly did not speak the language of Sophocles, preferring a version of pidgin laced with dialect and slang that is widely spoken in Nigeria. ‘I challenged him about it but he laughed,’ says Caroline. For all his obvious lies, she found him attractive. ‘We messaged and emailed every day.

'He soon said he was falling in love with me and I began to feel the same. I found it hard to explain to my sons that I was falling for someone I’d never met. Strangely, though, you communicate at a very intense level when it’s not face-to-face. Sab is a direct, articulate person. He said he goes to church every Sunday and that his faith is strong. He said we were fated to meet. When he first emailed that he loved me, a month after our initial encounter, I wrote, “Don’t go there.” I was terrified of the intensity of my feelings towards him.’

Caroline was well aware that much of ‘Sab’s’ story was invented, yet it was only after two months of passionate conversation that the two of them spoke seriously about his identity. ‘He confessed he was not who he’d said he was, that he couldn’t do it to me any more, that he “hadn’t planned on the emotion”, as he put it.’ He had to come clean. Hearing that he was really a black Nigerian came as no shock - his pidgin English and African-style dialect had given Caroline a major clue. She says: ‘He said he was desperate to do something with his life, that he’d been looking for money to get into oil.’

At this point, she explains, her story took a darker turn, one very much at odds with the image of respectability so carefully nurtured by Royal Tunbridge Wells, a town that has not so far made its money through black-market oil deals on the coast of West Africa.

By this stage, the alarm bells should have been head-splittingly loud, yet somehow Caroline managed to ignore them. It’s big business in Nigeria,’ she says, now shocked by the sheer madness of the scheme he was proposing. We fell into each other’s arms. We kissed, we sobbed. I had never been so happy since giving birth to my first child.'

He explained how easy it is for gangs to tap the vast network of oil pipelines coming ashore from the wells on the Niger delta. It is known as ‘bunkering’. Armed with basic engineering skills - and guns - they drill into the network, fix their own lines, hidden from view beneath the water, then watch while a waiting barge is filled with stolen crude. ‘They get an agent, siphon oil, barrel it, store and then freight it by tanker at an appropriate time,’ she says.

‘I was under no illusion. It was obviously illegal. I’m not proud that I was tempted. Perhaps his assurance that he could make around £1.25million overnight was what convinced me.’ And, then, as she says: ‘Love changes everything. We seemed to have so much in common. We were both risk-takers. More importantly, he seemed so much stronger than me. I’d never had that. ‘Both my ex-husbands were weak, which was perhaps why those marriages didn’t last.’

Foolishly, as she now admits, Caroline had told Sab that her mother had recently died, and that she was due to inherit a share of the house where her sister, Jennifer, lives in nearby Southborough, with her disabled husband Stephen and their two children. ‘He never asked me how much money I was going to get,’ she insists. ‘But suddenly it was all about doing this oil deal. I had a gut feeling something was wrong. He said he’d make his fortune, pay me back, then set up in business importing luxury American cars. I was desperate to travel to Nigeria to see him. I knew all the risks. I’d heard about women being captured, held to ransom, even murdered.’

They arranged to meet in South Africa, a neutral country from where Sab could organise the ‘deal’ and where Caroline could organise the facelift she had wanted for some time. She says: ‘After a few hiccups with Sab’s visa - I paid for his flight, of course, all the while thinking, “scam, scam scam” but doing it anyway - I got there. I got off the plane in Johannesburg, churning, sweating, feeling like a teenager. I went through Arrivals, trying desperately to look cool. 'There he was, beaming and waving. We fell into each other’s arms. We kissed, we sobbed. I had never been so happy since giving birth to my first child.

‘We had breakfast in the airport, then went to a hotel. I gave him presents. He cried. I showered. We talked. “God, you’re so beautiful,” he kept saying. “You only look 30." It was all I needed to hear. One thing led to another. It was so intimate. I’d never experienced anything like it before. I knew this was true love. I almost wish now that it HAD been just sex, but it wasn’t. 'He wasn’t the skilled, experienced lover, but quite shy. If that was all just part of an act, he should get an Oscar.’

They spent a month together, staying in small upmarket hotels. ‘Sab’ never once put his hand in his pocket, but Caroline was happy to pay and happy to be loved. We went on to Cape Town, where he planned his deal over the phone in front of me,’ she says, ‘showing me things on the internet, all proof in my eyes that he was honest.’ Then they visited a consultant about her plastic surgery. ‘Sab wasn’t happy about me doing it, but it’s cheaper there. I was desperate to look younger for him. I returned to the UK and went back for the operation six weeks later, having also paid for Sab’s visa extension. He had found a small apartment for £300 a month. I had the facelift, he looked after me. I could not have looked worse, but he stayed. Again I returned home, truly believing in him. I sent another £5,000 for his oil permit, then £2,500 for two trucks and an escort to the tankers. At last, three weeks ago, he set off to get the oil.’

' I was madly in love with him. I still am.' Romance scamming, as it is known, is more common than ever, with British women at greater risk than those of any other nationality. At this point, what seems grimly predictable to a neutral observer takes on an air of the inevitable. ‘Sab’ had already warned her about ‘militant factions’ who can prevent deals such as his from taking place. ‘He’d made the risks very clear, but I believed he could pull it off,’ she says. 'Then we lost contact. At about 4pm on the day, his mobile went down. I couldn’t reach him for days. 'We went from speaking and texting every day to zero. Eventually he called. He was sobbing and said, “How can I talk to you, how can I face you? I’ve lost everything.” ‘I was in shock. I’d lost 15 months of my life and everything I owned. I’d handed over close to £40,000.’

As well as the upfront money he claimed to need for the oil scam, Caroline had wired regular gifts of cash to her Nigerian lover. An additional £20,000 she admits, sadly, has been spent on travelling and the facelift. Caroline had borrowed the money from her sister, Jennifer, against her share of the family home. Fortunately, Jennifer was still able to keep the house.

That same night, after receiving the phone call, Caroline wrote letters to her sons and sister and swallowed an overdose of painkillers. ‘I felt that everyone would be better off without me,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t wait to see Mummy and Daddy again. I reverted to my childhood. It was the easiest way of letting go. My sister found me, and called the ambulance. She hadn’t known much of what had been going on, but now they had my mobile phone and trawled through everything.’

Her family are still trying to persuade Caroline to make a complaint to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), and co-operate with them to have her lover arrested. According to SOCA, ‘romance scamming’, as it is known, is more common than ever, with British women at greater risk than those of any other nationality.

One scammer in Ghana, Maurice Fadola, has defrauded 16 women, taking £700,000 from five of them. Caroline was well aware of the risks. Yet still she believed in ‘Sab’ - and still, to some extent, believes in him now. ‘He had an explanation for everything,’ she says. ‘I believed him because I was madly in love with him. I still am. ‘After all that I’ve lost, half of me trusts him. The other half - if the authorities can give me proof - wants them to bang him up and lose the key. All I know is that I’ve never felt so much emotion as with this man. We all have our Achilles heel. I was so desperate to be loved that I’d believe almost anything.’

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