Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, page 19
He said he was going to Germany to look for work. Soon afterwards, Alison received a letter – a postcard sent from Germany. Cassidy wrote: ‘Don’t want a holiday in the sun.’ It was an elliptical reference to a song by the Sex Pistols, inspired by the punk band’s trips to Berlin and Jersey. The last line of the song was: ‘Please don’t be waiting for me.’
According to her friends, Alison looked numb the week after he left. She functioned like an automaton – getting up, showering, making cups of tea, buying a newspaper, and staring into space. As Cassidy’s disappearance sank in, Alison became confused and snappy. She started to feel paranoid and fear she was going mad. She felt abandoned without explanation. ‘I was stuck. I had no grieving process. It was like someone was lost at sea. I had no answers.’ She examined the only things that Cassidy had left behind – a receipt from a cash card, a piece of paper with the registration number of his van, and a prescription for two asthma inhalers.
Cassidy had executed the standard operating procedure for departing SDS spies. It was a formula: the breakdown, the love notes and the sudden and unexplained disappearance, followed by the letter from abroad. Then silence. John Dines had done exactly the same to his girlfriend Helen Steel nearly 10 years earlier. And just as Steel was unable to stop searching for her boyfriend, arriving, eventually, in New Zealand, Alison felt compelled to find her man.
This time round, the girlfriend had reason to suspect her partner early on. Weeks after Cassidy had vanished, Alison was contacted by an activist who wanted to speak to him. After explaining that he had left her without trace, she agreed to meet to talk through his disappearance. She left this meeting thinking he might be some kind of spy. As it dawned on her that Cassidy was not coming back, she began researching his background. It was a journey that, like Steel’s, began in the archives of birth and death certificates. Alison recalled the date Cassidy claimed his father had died in a car crash. She opened up the bound volumes and started to run her finger down the lists of deaths for that year. When she discovered there was no trace of the death, she broke down.
Alison eventually decided her boyfriend had probably been a spy, and that she had inadvertently provided him with ‘an excellent cover story … The level to which he was integrated into my family life meant that people trusted me, people knew that I was who I said I was, and people believed, therefore, that he must be who he said he was because he was so welcomed into my family, so much part of it.’
Just as Steel had done before her, she hired a private detective, who managed to access Cassidy’s tax, welfare benefits and national insurance records. Once again, the covert triggers attached to the files would have flashed an alert silently back to the SDS headquarters. They would have revealed once more to the SDS managers that someone was searching for one of their spies.
A year after his disappearance, the detective’s findings showed that her boyfriend was a fake, but she had to dig further for his real identity. She was left raking over the past. It was only in retrospect that aspects of his behaviour did not fit. He supposedly had a favourite football team, Tranmere Rovers, but he was never recognised by anyone among the small band of followers. And then there was the kitchen he installed in their flat. It was not built very neatly for a man claiming to be a professional joiner. But the most incriminating incident had occurred about a year and a half into their relationship. Intuition had told Alison there was something not quite right with her partner. When he was out at the shops, she rifled through his jacket. She discovered a credit card in the name of M. Jenner. When he returned to their flat, Alison confronted her boyfriend. His hands clasped the sides of his head in shock. She had never seen him do that. ‘He told me he bought it off a man in a pub and he had never used it. He asked me to promise to never tell anyone, which is what I did. I never told anyone until after he disappeared.’
Ten years later, in 2011, Alison was informed by the authors of this book that Mark Cassidy was an SDS officer. His real name was Mark Jenner. He is believed to be still in the police, working in London.
His disappearance and the resulting trauma has had an ‘enormous impact’ on her, she says. ‘The experience has left me with many, many unanswered questions, and one of those that comes back is: how much of the relationship was real? I have, for the last 13 years, questioned my own judgment and it has impacted seriously on my ability to trust, and that has impacted on my current relationship and other subsequent relationships. It has also distorted my perceptions of love and my perceptions of sex.’
The ‘betrayal and the humiliation’ she experienced was ‘beyond any normal experience’, she adds. ‘This is not about just a lying boyfriend or a boyfriend who has cheated on you. It is about a fictional character who was created by the state and funded by taxpayers’ money.’
The stories of Alison and Steel have one thing in common. Despite their extensive efforts, and clues that put them on the right path, they never actually managed to track down their boyfriends. The SDS officers got away. They nearly always did. Jim Boyling was the exception. The story of Laura, an environmental activist who managed to track him down, must count among the most tragic in the history of the SDS. Boyling says that the story she tells is mainly ‘incorrect’, although he declines to elaborate.
The pair met toward the end of his undercover deployment, in the summer of 1999, when they attended a meeting of the Reclaim the Streets environmental group in a traditional Irish pub, the Cock Tavern, near to London’s Euston station. ‘He would rub his shaved head in meetings with a supposed coy but friendly shyness, but he was also known for not suffering fools gladly,’ Laura says of the man she knew as Jim Sutton. To many, he was ‘Grumpy Jim’, the Reclaim the Streets campaigner who had once been prosecuted for occupying the headquarters of London Transport. The ice broke some time later, when she was cooking a meal for fellow activists and he initiated a discussion about the merits of using fresh coriander.
The relationship developed quickly. In November, they started going out and, by February of the following year, Boyling had invited her to move in to his rented flat in Dulwich, a gentrifying part of south London. He had decorated the apartment with simple, hippyish items – Celtic and African patterned throws. Through a window, they could look out onto a yard where Laura grew herbs. Laura says her boyfriend looked after himself and would often go for a run to keep fit. ‘He ate very well – he bought ingredients I wouldn’t have been able to afford. He regularly bought specific ingredients such as papayas and sauces to add flavours. He took for granted that it was part of his regular shopping – speciality green leaves for stir fries and salads. He never cooked up a cheap, nutritious and simple stew.’
During the early part of their relationship, Laura felt she was experiencing the deepest love she had ever known. She was oblivious that he was being paid to spend time with her. ‘The public was paying him for the lengthy time we spent courting, spending time in the park, and even sleeping together,’ she says. The romance was almost overwhelming. ‘In the beginning I nearly broke it off because it felt too strong. It was as if he was a perfect blueprint for something I didn’t even know I was looking for.’ There was only one moment when Laura questioned the background of the man she thought was her soulmate. It was the briefest flicker of doubt. ‘It was the way he was cleaning his walking boots. I suddenly thought, “Who the hell is in my kitchen?” and then I came to and suddenly he was Jim again. It was such a brief moment and it made such little sense that I blanked it.’
In May 2000, conscious that Boyling had shown some interest in gardening, Laura returned home with some strawberry plants and ceramic pots. ‘Out of the blue, he told me that he had to leave me. He seemed quite shocked and it made no sense. It was completely out of character. He said he had to go alone; that there were things in his head that he had to sort out.’
The next few months were agonising for Laura. Boyling’s moods ‘swung violently’. He kept breaking down and crying in her arms, sayi
In September of that year, Boyling left, saying he was going to travel to Turkey and South Africa. A postcard from Turkey arrived soon afterwards, and it was followed by a phone call. ‘I told him I loved him and he sobbed his heart out. He said he thought he had messed everything up,’ she says. ‘He was supposed to call me again when he was hitchhiking through Syria. When he didn’t, I became worried and called the Foreign Office to ask what was going on. They told me he hadn’t left Istanbul and they were instigating a missing persons search.’
News of this development would have been sent over to Scotland Yard where Boyling’s supervisors would have looked on disapprovingly. Operatives were expected to be skilful enough to vanish without loose ends. A little anguish over the disappearance of a loved one was useful; it cemented the idea among activists that the spy had gone for good and made the exit seem real. But too much, and people left behind would try to track down the missing person. Laura was a case in point. Hers was an extraordinary and single-minded quest to find the man she loved.
She began looking into his background. She was worried that he may be at risk in some way. She had also become increasingly distressed and confused by his behaviour, and needed counselling for her depression and panic attacks. ‘I tried to locate his parents because I was worried, but I couldn’t find them, or his brother, who he said was an independent travel agent in Nottingham. I wanted someone to know to contact me if something happened to him,’ she says. ‘If Jim was a nice guy, I wanted to help him. If he wasn’t a nice guy, I needed to know that so I could move on.’
Unable to find any trace of Boyling, she began to consider the possible explanations. ‘I was suspicious, but I kept thinking there was some explanation,’ she says. ‘I kept trying to turn to something solid to base the truth on but I couldn’t find it – each time it crumbled.’ She discovered from official records that he was not adopted and neither was he born on the day he claimed. ‘When I found a hopeful lead, I felt that there was hope that life would start to make sense, that life was going to be OK, but when it didn’t come through, I would be sat on the floor in an empty hall feeling overwhelmed, my head spinning. He no longer existed in physical presence or on paper. I didn’t know what to think or what to do. I felt like I was trying to climb out of a black hole with my fingertips.’
Tenaciously, Laura pressed on. Boyling had emailed her to say that he still loved her, but had been forced to leave her against his wishes. He claimed that he was not coping very well, but hoped that he could go back to her. Another email led her to believe that he was working in a vineyard in South Africa. In the summer of 2001, she travelled there and spent three months searching for him. As months passed by, Laura became exhausted and the strain was showing. She returned to London, but with nowhere to live. ‘I used all my savings trying to find him and I was very thin, down to 6 stone 12 lb. I stayed for a while in a backpackers’ hostel on Gray’s Inn Road and on a stranger’s sofa.’
What happened next was extraordinary. Although enfeebled, Laura managed to track down one of the squad’s secret safe houses. The trail began some months before with a list of all the phone numbers Boyling had rung while he was living with her. Laura sifted through the list of telephone numbers for clues, and found two she did not recognise. She dialled the first number and said she wanted to speak to Jim Sutton. The man who answered sounded panicked and demanded to know how she had got the number. Later she called the second number; another voice answered and said he did not know anyone called Jim Sutton, but offered to help and took down all of Laura’s details. He never called back.
With the help of a private detective, Laura traced the two numbers to a rundown office block on Camberwell New Road in south London. In November 2001, more than a year after Boyling had melted away, Laura sat in a pub opposite the block and watched who came in and out. She noted down the registration numbers of the cars parked nearby. She could not have known that she was conducting surveillance on what was at the time the clandestine headquarters of the SDS, situated above the nondescript City Office Superstore stationers.
She had however previously discovered that the phone numbers belonged to a government agency. By now she was ‘very, very scared’ that she had stumbled upon some sort of malevolent secret state. She did not know if Boyling was part of this state or running away from it.
It was a low point in her search but, two days later, she saw him again. Her detective work had yielded several leads about his real identity. Part of this information had come by tracing the locations of the computers he had used to send his recent emails. She believed that she had found out his real name, his relatives and the school he had attended. In one of his emails, he had appeared to encourage her to believe that he was in England. She had come to suspect that he was living in Kingston in Surrey and had started to spend a lot of time in the area. She took a job in a local bookshop. ‘I remember thinking it was the kind of place Jim would go,’ she says.
On the first day in her new job, Boyling walked in. It was more than a year since he had disappeared. ‘He said: “Don’t be angry,” and I said I wasn’t,’ Laura recalls. ‘He asked for a hug, and he smelt the same, which was weird.’ She urgently needed him to explain what he had been doing. ‘I needed answers,’ she says.
Later that day, in a café near Kingston Bridge, Boyling made a confession of sorts. He admitted he had been a police spy and disclosed his real name, but claimed that his experience undercover had changed him. He said he regretted what he had done. ‘He said he’d got involved when he was young, and had no idea about politics, that he’d been sucked in, that he had always cared about Friends of the Earth and done his recycling,’ says Laura. He told her that he was very much in love with her and wanted to continue the relationship.
She has come to believe that he was fabricating a story to make her forgive his betrayal and entrap her deeper into a relationship that she would never have started in the first place if she had known the truth. At the time she was desperately vulnerable, fearful and traumatised – a state of mind, she believes, that he exploited. She believes that he manipulated her as her long search had left her unable to work out what was real and what was not.
She says Boyling repeatedly promised her that he would leave the police and start a new life, saying that he was opposed to the work of the spies. But he claimed that he was worried about the consequences if he left the police and cited another case in which an undercover operative was ‘hounded’ after abandoning the squad.
In hindsight Laura no longer believes Boyling’s justification for staying in the police. ‘He just morphs for his own self-interest with no moral basis or grounding,’ she says. ‘He has no loyalty to anyone or anything – not to the police, not to activists, not to his own family. He finds out what people psychologically want and then he gives it to them. He’s exceptionally talented at portraying compassion in himself. You genuinely feel that you’re looking into a man’s soul.’
Soon there was another factor to consider. Within two weeks of the meeting in the bookshop, she became pregnant with his child. They has started living together. However, Laura believes that he deliberately began to isolate her from her life in the environmental movement. Now living in a gated community in Surrey, he insisted that she get rid of the telephone numbers of her political friends. He encouraged her, she says, to believe the police were able to monitor everything that was going on and would spot her if she tried to contact other activists.
Boyling also appeared to be desperate to conceal their relationship from his police bosses. Laura says he even made her change her name by deed poll to diminish the chances of anyone discovering their relationship before they could start their new life. It is a claim he disputes, saying that she made the change ‘out of her own voli
Boyling was far less risk-averse when it came to preserving the secrets of the Met police, she says. Some time after coming off his undercover deployment, he was transferred to the Muslim Contact Unit, which was run by his old SDS boss, Bob Lambert. Laura says her boyfriend boasted about his access to confidential information and sometimes divulged secrets. ‘He would oscillate between being open about his activities and those of his colleagues in the police,’ she says. ‘He only told me things when they were unsolicited by me.’
She says her boyfriend told her that spies were permitted to have sex with activists because it was considered a ‘necessary tool’. ‘Jim complained one day that his superiors said there was to be no more sexual relations with activists – the implicit suggestion was that they were fully aware of this before and that it had not been restricted in the past,’ she says. ‘He was scoffing at it, saying that it was impossible not to expect people to have sexual relations. He said people going in had “needs” and I felt really insulted.’ He is known to have had relationships with at least three activists while he was undercover.
Boyling also revealed classified details from confidential police files on activists, according to Laura. He told her about phone messages her old activist friends were receiving and the contents of Helen Steel’s luggage when it was searched at the airport. He even gave his girlfriend a glimpse into the modus operandi of trained SDS men, which she found repugnant. ‘He said the trick was to have a whole and detailed story but not tell too much of it. He said if you’re lying, it’s tempting to tell too much of your cover story, but that’s the mistake.’ Laura recalls her boyfriend saying he missed his covert work. ‘He said it was great because it was like being God. He knew everyone’s secrets on both sides and got to decide what to tell who and decide upon people’s fate.’