I was engaged to an undercover police officer – everything in the relationship was a lie | Undercover police and policing

Donna McLean and Carlo at Donna’s sister’s graduation dinner, Glasgow, November 2002. © Donna McLean

It’s September 2015 and my mum and my sister have come by train from Scotland to visit me at home on the Kent coast, hoping to catch the last of the autumn heat. They live in the rainiest part of the UK, and I’ve moved to the corner with the most sun.

I close the kitchen door on my twin daughters playing in the living room, shushing the dogs away.

“I need to talk to you about Carlo,” I say.

“Carlo?” my mum splutters. This is not what either of them had expected. It is almost 11 years since Carlo and I split up, leaving me homeless and devastated. It’s not something we talk about any more.

“Has he been in touch with you? Tell him to get to – ”

“No. No, Mum, he hasn’t been in touch.”

“What’s he done?”

“Well. It’s kind of a long story. Have you heard in the news about the women who had relationships with men who turned out to be undercover police officers?”

“Yes,” my sister says. “That guy with the funny eye. He was in Scotland for the G8. What’s his name?”

“Kennedy. Mark Kennedy.”

“He was targeting environmental groups, right?” My sister has always been politically aware. It’s one of the things we have in common.

“Well … Carlo was one of them, too.”

I pause, looking at them both with an unusual seriousness. Our biannual visits are normally jovial affairs. I wish I could have avoided this revelation for longer.

“Sorry, Mum, there’s no easy way to say it. The Carlo you knew was not a real person. He was a fiction.”

“What?!” My mum is ready to explode. “What are you saying, Donna?”

“What I’m saying is that Carlo was not a locksmith. He was an undercover cop, working for special branch. He was sent by the state to spy on my friends.”

“But what had you done? Why you?”

“I hadn’t done anything. And I know it doesn’t make an ounce of sense, but I think I was a cover for him.”

My sister shakes her head. “God almighty.”

“Two years.” My mum taps her long nails on the table in a slow beat. “You lived with him for two bloody years.”

My sister starts to nod her head, piecing the bizarre story together and making the link to my friends at the time, who were trade union and anti-racism activists. I grew up in a working-class family, was traditionally leftwing and a trade union rep at work, but I wasn’t involved in any organised activism beyond the odd protest march.

“Was he spying on Steve? Dan, too?” Dan was a close friend and colleague in the homelessness sector, as well as a trade union and anti-racism activist. Steve is now a senior trade union official.

I nod. My sister stares at her glass of wine, a faraway look in her eyes. “Now I think of it, he drove like a cop. The way he would weave in and out. He drove fast, too.”

I shake my head. That has never crossed my mind.

“This book,” I say to both of them. “Please read this.”

I hand each a copy of Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, the Guardian journalists who had done so much to expose the scandal of undercover police forming relationships with female activists. I pour more wine. We sit in a rare familial silence, the pair of them flicking through their books, not really taking in any words.

The day I first met Carlo was bathed in acid colours, a Lichtenstein painting. He was in a yellow hi-vis vest over a sky-blue T-shirt with a nondescript logo, polarised sunglasses masking his eyes. They looked expensive.

I had twisted my shiny chestnut hair into loose bunches, and an amber bindi winked out from my forehead. My belly proudly displayed its new tattoo, a self-designed mosaic of red and purple hearts. I had recently lost two stone, due to a relationship breakdown. But I looked fit and healthy, like I’d been on a spa break.

We had met among half a million people, marching through London on 28 September 2002. It was the biggest political demonstration Britain had seen in 30 years. Simultaneous protests happened around the country, on a scale not seen since 1968. We were there to voice our disgust at the impending invasion of Iraq.

I’d travelled down on the Bakerloo line alone, planning to meet my trade union comrades at Embankment. It was heaving from Tottenham Court Road down. I’d joined the rush, working my way around the edges to the main surge, hoping to find the Unison banner.

I had first noticed Carlo on Piccadilly, leaning against the railings of St James’s Park, on the edge of the slow-moving crowd. I spotted Dan, in his neon steward’s vest, and waved frantically, then headed towards him, ducking under a sea of trade union banners and Palestinian flags.

Carlo was standing behind Dan, his manner casual, yet commanding. Dan was stocky, but Carlo was the size of a bull. I sensed he was watching my movements from behind the secretive shades.

Dan introduced him, the dark stranger who hadn’t said a word. “Donna, this is Carlo. He’s a comrade from Bologna, came back to London a year ago.”

Carlo nodded, casual. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

My sister stares at her glass, slowly shaking her head. “I can’t take this in. I can’t believe this has happened to you.” She looks suddenly lost. She is always so self-possessed. “To think he came to my graduation.”

“Oh my God, yes! Do you remember, he stood up for the national anthem and he was told to sit back down?!”


“His suit was a bit weird? A bit middle-aged, staid?”

“And his shoes were always perfectly polished.”

We laugh at how ludicrous it all is, finding some comfort in each other despite how awful the truth is.

“Snow globes.” My mum looks through the dark kitchen window, out into the small back garden. The solar fairy lights round the pear tree are just coming on.

“What’s that, Mum?”

“Snow globes. Do you remember, he collected them? I used to buy them when he came to Scotland, from Arran or Largs or Burns Cottage. Portugal, if we went on holiday. He had dozens. Do you think he even liked them?”

Carlo asked me to marry him on Hogmanay, just three months after that sunny day on Piccadilly. He went down on one sturdy knee, unexpectedly, just before midnight. Our relationship had progressed quickly, with him moving in six weeks after we met. Carlo was everything I wanted in a partner. He was affectionate, generous, an exceptional cook, loved dogs and firmly believed in monogamy. We’d spent Christmas apart, him in Italy, me in Scotland, exchanging presents in bed before he dropped me off to catch my flight to Prestwick. He had carefully wrapped presents for each of my family.

It was Carlo who’d suggested a party, said we should do it properly, the Scottish way. He’d invited our whole gang, people from across the activist scene and a few others, too. As they arrived, we welcomed them with rossinis: prosecco with strawberries Carlo had blended himself. Laughter bounced off the walls of our small flat.

Carlo was wearing the shirt my mum had bought him for Christmas, floral pinky-beige cord. He moved around, saying hello to people he’d never met, pointing in my direction. I chatted to friends, who said: “He’s a keeper.”

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Not everyone present heard the proposal, as the party was in full flow. The Pogues were blasting out from the CD player. I’ve got a feeling this year’s for me and you.

“I love you, baby … ” Carlo sang. “Will you marry me, Donna?” On one knee in the middle of the dancefloor.

Looking down at his face, I knew he loved me. His eyes would never lie.

“Yes! Yes, I will marry you!”

I whooped and everyone turned around to see him lift me off my feet, black tights showing as my swirly dress got caught up in his arms. He put me down, arms still wrapped around me, looking into my eyes.

“Let’s ring your mum,” he said.

“We’ll never get through! The lines will be busy with new year phone calls.”

He pinched my waist, holding me tightly. “Go on, darlin’. I want to tell her the good news.”

I had wanted to stay there swaying with him, holding that moment in time. But he pulled us out into the cold night. He took his phone out, dialling my mum’s number before I could protest. Her voice broke the silence of the night, then Carlo’s, telling her the news. Her shouts of joy as he wrapped an arm around me. Holding on to me.

The cafe I’ve chosen for my first meeting with Rob Evans is deserted, tables of all shapes and sizes spread over three floors, with mirrors and extravagant lights. It doubles as an antique shop, and everything is for sale.

I choose a shady corner table, partially obscured by a potted fern. We order coffees, then set about excavating my past.

I explain to Rob that before I found out the truth about Carlo, I had read his book, and been devouring news coverage about spy cops. When I listened to the female activists’ stories, I noticed similarities to my own experience. So when I received a Facebook message from an old friend in July 2015, asking to meet up and talk about Carlo, I guessed what it was about. Activists and researchers, working together on investigating the scandal, were certain he was an undercover police officer.

I try to tell Rob how it feels. My steady life has been thrown up in the air, becoming a scattered jigsaw puzzle. There are so many pieces missing. I’ve discovered my partner of two years didn’t exist; I’ve discovered he was married the whole time we were together, that his wife was pregnant when we were still in a relationship.

Rob tells me he has been meeting with the activists, too; that they first started talking about Carlo back in 2012. He had learned a lot about the spy cops and their behaviour – the way they infiltrated groups, and the cruel way in which they extracted themselves from real people’s lives. I describe the expensive dinners, generous gifts and Carlo’s treasured motorbike. Rob tells me these men were paid extremely well to lie for a living. It occurred to me that all my presents would have been on expenses.

Rob asks if I’ve thought about launching a civil case against the police. I explain that I’ve met a couple of women from the original case and they have put me in touch with the human rights solicitor Harriet Wistrich. I will also request to join the public inquiry into undercover policing, as a core participant. I’ve already adopted a pseudonym, Andrea, to protect my privacy.

I finally get around to telling Rob about the day Carlo moved his things out. He’d said he needed to sort his head out; that the death of his father and subsequent revelations had messed him up so much, he needed time and space on his own. He would always love me, and he would get our life together back on track. He had chosen to move out while I was at work, turning up in his estate car to clear out his belongings. He took everything with him, every book, cup, saucer, right down to the last teaspoon. It felt like a forensic operation.

Donna McLean and Carlo at Donna’s sister’s graduation dinner, Glasgow, November 2002. © Donna McLean
Donna and Carlo at her sister’s graduation dinner in Glasgow, November 2002. Photograph: © Donna McLean

I didn’t hear from him for two weeks. I was in a mess, listlessly trundling to work on the tube and staying as late as possible to avoid going home. When he rang and asked if we could go out for dinner, I thought he’d had a change of heart. He insisted he still needed some distance, but said we could keep seeing each other, maybe a few times a week. This routine continued for six months.

The last time I saw Carlo was in November 2004, late on a Thursday night, outside Regent Street Cinema in central London. We went to a long Italian film about the breakdown of a marriage, told backwards. When we left the cinema, he walked ahead and flagged down a taxi.

“Camberwell, please, mate.” He held the door open for me, the distance between us widening to a chasm.

Camberwell was where I lived. I said: “I thought I was coming back to yours.” That was the new routine. Knickers and toothbrush stuffed in my handbag under my work notebook. He faced me and handed a wad of notes to the driver: “Here you go, mate.” Then he turned and walked off.

An envelope arrived two weeks later. The sight of his handwriting made my stomach churn. It contained a note saying he would always love me and a gift voucher for the Sanctuary Spa in Covent Garden. I wanted to throw it straight in the bin.

I never heard from Carlo again. Once, in 2006, I believed I saw him. I was on the underground, travelling across London to a conference in Kensington. A large, dark man sat opposite me, brown eyes, big hands, soft lips. So familiar, but he had long straggly hair under his baseball cap and a biker jacket with band logos sewn on. It was disconcerting to see someone so similar yet so different. It couldn’t possibly be him, I reasoned. An acquaintance told me he was in Italy now and he certainly hadn’t developed a penchant for German death metal. I was deluded in thinking otherwise.

By October 2018 my case is moving forward well, according to my solicitor, Harriet. I’ve started campaigning, public speaking, writing news pieces, working alongside the various groups affected by state abuse. There is a new wave of public attention around the undercover cops, a demand for real retribution. The pressure on the police is intensifying, and they know it.

On 9 October, I attend an Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) interview at Folkestone police station. This is a clinical examination of my relationship with Carlo that takes three hours. The format is used for questioning victims of rape/sexual assault. I had received a letter, a short, formal note explaining the process and giving the details of when the interview would take place. I called Harriet, who explained that it was part of the process if I wanted to proceed with a criminal case against Carlo. She said they needed as much detail at their end as they could get. For their own “investigation” into what they had, themselves, condoned.

The interviewers, two female detectives from the Metropolitan police, are not aggressive in their questioning but it is a very difficult and stressful experience, particularly when I’m asked to recount in detail the child sexual abuse that Carlo told me had happened in his family. He had come home from Italy, towards the end of our relationship, a broken man. He’d told me a terrible “truth” he’d found out at the heart of his family. He was shaken, desolate, and I would have done anything to support him. Sitting on a ripped plastic sofa in this grim interview room, I am hit with the realisation that all of the stories were made up. They were invented by Carlo, first to get my empathy, then to form the foundations of his exit strategy.

In this cold room I feel my insides start to churn and my eyes well up. I am scared I’m going to vomit. My logical brain understands that just about everything that took place in this relationship was a lie, but I haven’t processed what that really means. I haven’t had to deal with the emotions of it. Until now.

The detective asks about our sex life. How often, where, what were his preferences? Did we use contraception?

“Not condoms,” I say. “I was on the pill. We were in a monogamous relationship.” She looks at me pointedly, but I can’t read what she is saying. Is she judging me? Sympathising with me for being so seriously duped?

“His wife … ” I say, shaking my head. Thinking about how I found out that she was pregnant while we were together. How he wanted me to get pregnant. Did he seriously want to have two children born within weeks of each other? This whole thing is insane.

“He didn’t care about either of us.”

The detectives move on to the next question. Those three hours feel like three days, and no amount of coffee and conciliatory words make it easier. I leave shaking, head to the sea, walk until the salt air clears my head.

A week later I am obliged to attend another psychiatric assessment the Met have insisted on, at the Maudsley hospital in Camberwell, south London. I am furious on three counts: one, I am being forced to undergo this violation; two, I am being forced to see a man and they refuse to allocate a female psychiatrist; three, he is a forensic shrink, not an expert in trauma.

In the lead-up to the assessment, I feel an anxious, heavy dread. I have the added ugly promise of night terrors to look forward to. Vivid nightmares in which I am about to die at the hand of an unseen assailant. Sometimes there is sleep paralysis, the incubus, where I feel I am awake but am paralysed as the horror descends on me, crushing my body. My screams are silent. Eventually I wake and I am screaming, soaked in sweat. I am unable to move for a few minutes, shivering in the cold as my brain processes reality versus my dream state.

At the Maudsley, a small man in a petrol-blue suit comes into the reception area and calls my name.

“Miss McLean?”

He was supposed to use my pseudonym. My children call me Mum; my family and friends call me Donna. But in the press reports about my case I’ve also been “Andrea”. A “victim”, a “survivor”, an “activist”. It’s hard to explain the fragmentation of being called something else, the strangeness of creating an identity for this other woman. Is she stronger than me? Or more fragile? Funnier, warmer, weaker? I am still trying to work it out.

“It’s Andrea,” I mutter, following him to a side room.

Prof Sweeney (not his real name) is an angular man with a downturned mouth and a steely expression. He beckons me wordlessly to the armchair and I recount it all again, an articulate robot. Yes, this happened; no, I’m not suicidal. I am forced to go back to all the childhood shit again. Domestic violence. That was the bond between us. Childhood trauma.

Why must I keep saying it? It does not matter any more. I cannot muster any more fight. I am almost defeated. They are winning.

Later, at a legal meeting, one of the other women duped by an undercover officer tells me that she felt close to breaking when the police wrote requesting she go through another assessment.

We all believe this tactic is designed to put other women off suing the police. There is a tsunami of new cases about to emerge, and an increase in public awareness means that other women who suspect they had a relationship with an undercover officer are seeking legal advice.

In the days and weeks after my ABE and Sweeney interviews, I become heightened, sleepless, agitated and distracted. I am distant from my family, racked by guilt but incapable of preventing it. All I want is to protect my children, especially after months of emotional absence. They are the great light that brought me out of the cloud after Carlo left. Now the tentacles of his lies are reaching into our home.

Christmas 2018 passes in a blur of flu. I struggle to get to Scotland for the new year. My mum and sister have gone overboard on presents, worry pulsating out of them. They fuss around me, care for the girls as I spend days in bed, feverish and agitated. As 2018 passes to 2019, I clink whisky glasses with my family and think back on that Hogmanay when Carlo proposed.

In January my solicitor calls, tells me gently that they would like to arrange a second consultation with Dr Clifton, an independent expert in complex trauma who has been instructed by our lawyers to report on the impact of the deceptive relationships. I want to say no, but some small voice tells me to go along. At Dr Clifton’s office, I sit across from her, the room warm, comforting, so different from Sweeney’s. She smiles at me, asks how things have been since we last spoke.

I tell her about the rape interview, as I call it.

“The policewoman was OK, but it was being video-recorded and there was someone watching in another room. I had to describe what he looked like naked. His body hair. His funny-shaped toes. His penis. I mean, Jesus Christ! After all that, I found out the CPS wouldn’t prosecute. All of that, for nothing!”

She asks what happened, and I have to explain that the Crown Prosecution Service made a blanket statement on all our cases. There would be no prosecutions for sexual offences due to genuine feelings. Genuine feelings. They are trying to excuse Carlo by saying he really loved me. It is yet another deflating, denigrating experience, and highlights in the most basic way how institutionally sexist the criminal justice system is. Consent means nothing.

I can feel my face flushed, my heart beating fast.

“What has helped?” Her question makes me pause. “Walking the dogs by the sea, writing, spending time with the other women. Keeping my head above water, talking about it. Not being broken. I won’t be broken.”

She tells me I’m not broken, and puts her pen down. “Your solicitors are keen to get my report. It sounds as though they are close to settling your case.”

“Finally! It’s only been four years!” I laugh. “This really has derailed my life.”

She smiles at the understatement and asks: “Do you think you’ll drop your anonymity at some point?”

As she asks it, a feeling rushes through me. Something like hope, or power. Having a pseudonym and keeping my story secret is akin to being in witness protection: it is meant to keep you safe but feels like a loss of personal freedom. In that moment, sitting across from Dr Clifton, I realise how much I want to be Donna, not Andrea. This double life was forced on me by Carlo’s deception. I am not ashamed of who I am. I want to stand in my own truth, in my own name.

This is an edited extract from Small Town Girl by Donna McLean, published by Hodder & Stoughton on 3 February at £16.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.