I know a good number of you reading this story might be tempted to call the women involved stupid. Please don’t. As a working class lady, I know how very difficult it can be to meet people outside the work space and dating becomes a nightmare.
Resorting to virtual means such as the internet in order to meet potential dates becomes a very valid option and every once in a while yields fruit.
It did not for these women though and tragically, they were being tossed about by a woman like them.
That said, whenever anything in life seems too good to be true, it often is.
With hindsight, Claire Travers Smith can see that the man she thought she was falling in love with was too good to be true.
Sebastian Pritchard-Jones burst into her life via a dating website two years ago. The photograph he sent her showed a dark-haired, smiling 30-something man. He said he was a primary school teacher living in London, and had a love of football and old Ford Cortinas.
When they finally spoke on the telephone, 32-year-old TV producer Claire was reassured by Sebastian’s soft, lilting Welsh voice, his charming banter and the way their conversations could stretch on for hours.
‘He said I was attractive and funny — all the things you would want to hear,’ says Claire. Not surprisingly, she agreed to meet him.
If there was a happy ending to this story, Claire and Sebastian would have fallen in love, perhaps even got married.
The reality, however, is a tale so sinister that it should be required reading for anyone reaching out into cyberspace, hoping to find love.
Sebastian cancelled his first date with Claire a week after they had met online, claiming a crisis at the primary school where he worked. On the day of their rescheduled date, he stood her up, saying he was in hospital after tearing his cruciate ligament playing football.
When Seb cancelled for a third time, Claire, who was writing a blog about her dating experiences, was ready to dismiss him as a time-waster.
Sebastian, however, wasn’t prepared to give up on Claire. He sent her a photograph of a bottle of her favourite scent with a hand-written note which read: ‘Why would I buy you a bottle of perfume if I had no intention of meeting you?!?’
Claire, who had begun to realise ‘something was not right’, looked long and hard at that photograph and at the gold bottle of Agent Provocateur Maitresse. The bottle’s mirrored surface showed the reflection of a figure holding a camera.
As Claire peered at the image, she saw that the figure looked nothing like the good-looking man she had seen in the dozens of photographs he had sent her. She could see someone with blonde hair.
She could see someone who was overweight with flabby arms, a round, plump face and a thick neck. In fact, Claire could see a woman. Her shock was, understandably, profound.
But she decided to make light of it with the online community. ‘That’s not the tall, dark, handsome Welsh stranger who had been messaging and calling me constantly for a month,’ she wrote sarcastically beside the photograph on her blog.
Privately, Claire confronted ‘Seb’, who told her she was paranoid and crazy. He later sent a last, desperate, but futile text to say: ‘I think I’m falling in love with you.’
And that might have been the end of the whole sorry business if she hadn’t shared the strange story of Sebastian Pritchard-Jones online.
Claire soon began receiving emails from other women who had been duped by Sebastian or who recognised her description of him. Over several months, a total of 14 women contacted Claire, all attractive, intelligent professionals with a clutch of university degrees between them.
The names he had used and his photographs sometimes varied, but the stories he told were almost identical: he was a teacher who had inherited a house in London’s Marylebone.
He loved Swansea FC and Ford Cortinas. He had a wheelchair-bound best friend in a nursing home, a loving family in Wales and an ex-girlfriend (or sometimes wife) who had died of breast cancer. They all recalled his sing-song Welsh accent.
Some women had become embroiled more deeply than others. Ali Moores, a 32-year-old recruitment consultant from Cambridgeshire, knew him — like Claire — as Sebastian. He had strung her along for a year, even promising marriage, before she finally broke free.
During her entanglement, which began in January 2010, Ali used to sleep with her phone on her pillow so she could call or text ‘Seb’ during the night. He sent roses to her and called her ‘Mrs Pritchard-Jones’.
Today, she recalls: ‘It was a daily occurrence to say how much we loved each other. We talked about having kids.’
Joanna Bell, a 41-year-old chef from London, was in touch with Welsh teacher ‘Harry Thomas’ for six months in 2011. She, too, believed they were going to get married.
Some of the women who contacted Claire even had phone sex with him.
But not one had ever met their online lover: because Sebastian — or Harry or Harvey as he was also known — would always cancel dates or not turn up.
Most of the relationships ended when the women tired of being let down. When they tried to cut off contact, Sebastian became abusive.
Ali recalls how, after accusing her of going on dates with other men, he wrote: ‘I’ll f***ing kill both of you.’
Pooling all the information she received, Claire embarked on a quest to discover Sebastian’s true identity.
Just as Sebastian used the internet to dupe his victims, she used social networking sites to track him down.
One of her first breakthroughs was finding the innocent man whose photographs had been stolen by ‘Sebastian’. One of Claire’s friends recognised that one of his pictures had been taken in a Milton Keynes shopping mall. Extensive online searching turned up the man whose identity had been stolen.
Claire contacted him via Facebook, showing him the 80 or so photographs she had been sent, along with Sebastian’s mobile number in the hope he might recognise it.
Indeed, he did. The number, he said, belonged to someone he had been messaging via a dating website called Plentyoffish in 2008.
When he told her the name of the person he had been texting, he confirmed Claire’s worst suspicions. It was a woman.
Ali Moores first heard about Claire’s quest to uncover Sebastian’s true identity in 2011. She had been so scarred by her experience that she had moved to Australia.
By then, Ali says, she knew that he was a fake. But she was so vulnerable that she found it difficult to escape his fantasy world.
‘Reading Claire’s blog set me free,’ says Ali, who is now married with two children. ‘I was so confused from trying to understand what was true and what wasn’t.’
Sebastian’s excuse for cancelling their first date was a broken leg. The injury was so severe he was in hospital for weeks.
An intense telephone relationship began. Ali admits: ‘I completely fell in love with him. He seemed wonderful. I had no reason not to believe in him.’
Many of their late-night conversations stretched on for hours. Sebastian told Ali in graphic detail how his first wife, Laura, had died two years earlier from breast cancer.
‘Talking to Seb began to take over a lot of my life,’ says Ali. ‘We’d spend all evening speaking. He was always there for me. There was nothing sinister about him, he came across as intelligent. I found myself liking him more and more.’
But, like Claire, Ali found it impossible to meet the man she was falling for. After six weeks recovering from his broken leg, and hundreds of hours of phone calls later, Sebastian invited Ali to visit him, but on the appointed day, instead of finalising a meeting point, he’d switched off his phone.
By now Ali was suspicious. When Sebastian surfaced, he sobbed to her about his dead wife and the guilt he felt about moving on.
‘He said he was going to get counselling; then we’d meet,’ says Ali. ‘He asked me to stick by him. I decided he was worth holding out for.’
They arranged to meet at the end of April, three months after their first online encounter. Seb’s family were flying home from a holiday in Jamaica, he said, and he wanted Ali to go with him to meet them at Gatwick airport.
A strange first date by anyone’s standards, but Ali says she felt as though they’d been in a relationship for months.
She acknowledges now, looking back, that her behaviour was not rational, but says: ‘He made me happy. And I felt wanted.’
Confused, but still ‘smitten’, her main worry was that he wouldn’t show up again. As their date approached, she suffered panic attacks and was prescribed sleeping pills.
Such was her concern, she telephoned him the night before and told Sebastian she was terrified he would stand her up at Victoria station, where they’d arranged to meet.
‘I asked him to collect me from my house instead,’ she says. ‘He said he’d book a taxi straight away. He called back to say it was booked and he’d pick me up at 6am.’
When Ali woke at 5am, she called Sebastian’s mobile and found it was switched off. Inevitably, no taxi arrived.
Joanna Bell’s memories about the man she knew as ‘Harry Thomas’ are equally disturbing. After meeting on a dating website, they arranged to meet at the end of July 2011. ‘He seemed to want to get to know me,’ says Joanna.
But while ‘Harry’ always cancelled their dates, Joanna recalls, ‘he tried to find out as much as he could about my life. He behaved as though we were in a relationship.’
At the time, Joanna’s father was dying of cancer and she returned to Yorkshire to be with him. But even on the day of her father’s funeral, Harry was texting her: ‘I am there with you, holding your hand.’
Joanna read Claire’s blog last October — and realised ‘Harry’ was also Sebastian Pritchard-Jones.
‘The lengths this person had gone to in order to fool us was sickening,’ Joanna says. ‘He — or she — knew exactly what we all wanted.’
With the help of Joanna, Ali and other women who’d seen her blog, Claire continued to hunt for the real Sebastian.
One of the women who’d contacted her had been sent roses, and she contacted the florist for the sender’s name. Ali had received money as a gift from Sebastian, and he’d told her it had been transferred from his sister’s account because of fraudulent activity on his own. As the investigations continued, one woman’s name emerged again and again.
Claire has agonised about whether to expose their cruel hoaxer. ‘My concern is it might result in her causing herself harm,’ she says. ‘But I do believe she needs help.’
Last month, her investigations led her to a terrace house in a town in Pembrokeshire where the woman she now refers to as Amy Palmer lives with her parents.
The woman who came to the door was overweight with bleached hair and was dressed casually in a T-shirt and shorts. She stared long and hard at Claire, and at the mention of the name Sebastian Pritchard-Jones she closed the door, a look of guilt etched across her face.
She spoke only once, saying: ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ — enough for Claire to recognise the voice as Sebastian’s.
Today, Claire admits that she felt some surprise when she first heard Sebastian’s voice. ‘It didn’t sound that masculine, but then some men’s voices are like that and your brain just fills in the gaps,’ she says.
Joanna describes it as sounding like an ‘effeminate man’. Ali, meanwhile, still struggles to believe the person she spoke to was female.
But while these women have tracked down their hoaxer, they have been left with the unanswered question: why would any woman go to such lengths to break their hearts?
This week, the Mail looked a little deeper into 37-year-old Amy’s life in search of clues that might explain her disturbing behaviour.
She has, say those who know her, never lived apart from her parents, never married or had children. Despite her bubbly persona, she has never had a serious boyfriend.
The youngest of four children born to a machine fitter and his wife, she was educated at Catholic schools, and has A-levels and a degree which she completed via long-distance learning at Camarthen University. She spent much of her life working in a care home for the disabled.
The disabled friend Sebastian talked about so often, and once even put on the phone to speak to several of the women, really does exist.
His mother told the Mail this week that, while Amy won care awards and was sent a letter of congratulation by Lord Coe because of Olympic celebrations she organised at the home, she is no longer working there.
She resigned in February after 13 years’ service, during which she had been promoted to deputy manager. ‘She is the apple of her parents’ eye,’ said one relative of hers. ‘She would do anything for them. If she was named and shamed, it would hurt them so deeply I don’t think she would be able to live with the fall-out.
‘She has never really had a long-lasting, deep relationship. In fact, I can’t recall any serious boyfriends. But she is quite an extrovert. She is great with her nephews and nieces, and loves lavishing them with treats and taking them out.
‘You wonder what that bubbly exterior must hide. I think she needs to be needed. Maybe she is trying to fill some deep void of love in her life.
‘Perhaps the person she was creating online for her victims was the man she hoped she would meet herself. I’m sure she would have made a wonderful wife and mother. It’s just never really happened for her.’
Whatever the truth about her motives, Claire, Joanna and Ali’s main concern is that her damaging behaviour should stop. Indeed, Claire reported Amy to the police after she received abusive texts from her when their relationship was ending. But the police said there was little they could do.
This week, a CID officer confirmed that Amy did receive a visit from Dyfed-Powys police in October 2011 and was given a verbal warning about her behaviour — a warning which has apparently fallen on deaf ears.
For as recently as this week, Claire’s blog has been receiving messages from someone she is convinced is Amy. ‘Something about the tone is very familiar,’ she says.
One particularly sinister message reads: ‘If you fall in love with somebody online without ever having met them, then that is your own fault.’
Amy Palmer may have been rumbled, but the ghost of Sebastian Pritchard-Jones, it seems, is still out there, lurking in the darkest corners of cyberspace.
Culled from www.dailymail.co.uk