Discovering that her fiancé was an undercover cop sent to infiltrate her friendship group turned Donna McLean’s life upside down. She tells Anna Moore how she was just one of many unsuspecting victims of a policy that has since rocked the Metropolitan Police.
It was the perfect setting for a proposal – Donna McLean’s partner Carlo had planned it that way.
It had been his idea to invite friends round to celebrate New Year on 31 December 2002. Carlo had decorated Donna’s flat in London’s Maida Vale: he’d put up the tree, hung the tinsel and framed the door with fairy lights. Wearing a new corduroy shirt (a Christmas present from Donna’s mum), he welcomed each guest with a Rossini cocktail and charmed them all. ‘He’s a keeper!’ friends whispered to Donna. The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ was playing and Donna and Carlo were dancing when he dropped to one knee and asked, ‘Will you marry me?’
‘Yes, yes, I will,’ she replied, and everyone cheered as he lifted her in the air. ‘I had no doubts whatsoever,’ says Donna, who was 30 at the time. ‘It felt like it was meant to be. This was the next stage of my life and it was going to be spent with him.’
The ring never materialised. The wedding never happened. In reality, the proposal was a piece of theatre. Carlo Neri, this charming Italian, who was practical, protective, politically engaged– and Donna’s perfect partner – did not exist. ‘Neri’ wasn’t even his real surname.
Through 2003, as the couple walked London’s canal paths planning their wedding and the names of their future children – Luca for a boy, Frida for a girl – Carlo had been playing a role. He was ‘at work’, paid for every minute he spent with Donna. In truth, he was already married with a son. His family lived an hour from Donna’s flat.
Carlo was a ‘police spy’ on long-term undercover deployment known as ‘deep swimming’. He’d been tasked with infiltrating left-wing groups and Donna, a former nurse who managed a drug treatment service for homeless people, was his way in. Though she wasn’t especially politically active herself, many of her friends were. They were trade unionists, members of the Socialist Workers Party and part of the justice campaign for the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. They trusted Donna so they trusted Carlo. In her new memoir Small Town Girl, Donna sets out just what it is like to meet the perfect man, to love and lose him – then discover years later that it was all a lie.
Perhaps most shockingly, her story isn’t an isolated case. This highly secret police policy of infiltrating over 1,000 political groups in order to gain intelligence stretches back to 1968. The officers selected had to be married and settled in order to have a secure base to return to. Their deployments typically lasted around five years and in that time, they formed intimate relationships. Donna now knows of 50 women who unknowingly had relationships with undercover officers. At least three had children with them.
The policy first came to light in 2010 because of a chance discovery by ‘Lisa’, an environmental campaigner who was on holiday with ‘Mark Stone’, her boyfriend of six years. Rooting through the glove box of his van in search of sunglasses, she found instead an old passport under the name of ‘Mark Kennedy’. There was also an unfamiliar mobile containing messages from children, referring to Mark as ‘Dad’. When she and other activists began digging, they found the birth certificate for Kennedy’s son, which recorded Kennedy’s occupation as ‘police officer’.
More cases began to emerge in the UK media. In 2011, a group of women launched legal action against the Metropolitan Police and Association of Chief Police Officers for the harm caused by deceiving them into long-term intimate relationships that breached their human rights. Although the Met has offered an unreserved apology and paid damages, the issue hasn’t gone away. In 2015, a Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing was launched in response to the growing number of women coming forward– women who had read the victims’ stories and seen the telltale patterns in their own pasts.
Donna now sees that her relationship with Carlo ticked every ‘spy cop’ box. They had met in September 2002 at an anti-war march in London (not an extreme, fringe event but the UK’s biggest demonstration in 30 years, where hundreds of thousands protested against military action in Iraq). Donna was at a vulnerable stage. ‘I’d just come out of a 12-year relationship, so I was a bit all over the place,’ she says. ‘With Carlo, there was a huge attraction but also a very quick emotional intimacy.’
They connected in so many ways. They shared the same political values, read the same books, liked the same music. More importantly, Carlo seemed a little lost, just like Donna. He claimed that he’d lived much of his life in Italy (he spoke fluent Italian) but had come to England after his mother’s death. His father had been violent towards his mother throughout his life and Carlo was haunted by his failure to protect her. Donna had also grown up with a violent father. ‘When you have a similar experience like that, it speeds up the bond,’ she says.
Donna has since learnt that spy cops always arrived with a traumatic backstory involving some degree of family separation. ‘In the beginning, it makes you compassionate. You want to look after them,’ she explains. It also gives them a ready-made excuse for not introducing you to family members.
‘And that trauma is the tool they use to extract themselves at the end.’
Their relationship moved fast. Carlo seemed to have everything. He was an accomplished cook– on their first morning together, he cooked eggs benedict, whipping up a hollandaise sauce from scratch while Donna was still in bed. He especially loved dogs (they planned to get a rescue hound and call him Che). Carlo was caring, romantic but also practical – he worked as a locksmith. He advised Donna on securing her flat and changed the locks, as well as the locks of countless other activists, effectively holding his own set of keys to all of them.
Within six weeks of meeting, he had moved into Donna’s flat and over the next few months, met her family in Scotland several times, even attending her sister’s graduation that autumn. Donna’s mother adored him.
Carlo didn’t bring many belongings with him. He had a snow globe collection which he lined up on the mantelpiece – Donna’s mum began buying him more whenever she went away. He also had some framed photographs. One was of his young son– according to Carlo, the result of a fling. Every other weekend, Carlo visited him, supposedly in Cornwall. (Donna wanted to meet him, but Carlo claimed that the mother was obstructive.) The other picture was of Carlo’s sister, who he said lived in Peterborough. Carlo claimed that she was unhappy and reclusive, and spent most of her time drinking and smoking inside her home.
For much of 2003, the newly engaged couple were blissfully happy. They celebrated Donna’s 31st birthday on holiday with her family in Whitby. For Carlo’s 33rd birthday, he took her to his home city of Bologna. Back in London, Donna was busy with a demanding job and Carlo juggled political meetings and events with work as a locksmith and also an Italian food business, which involved regular trips to Italy.
Towards the end of that year, though, he began to change. He became irritable, distracted, drank more and talked about his unhappy childhood. His once neat goatee grew into a straggly beard. He’d disappear with no explanation – he was once uncontactable for an entire week then claimed he’d been jailed in Italy for urinating on a police car. ‘He’d gone from being utterly reliable and resourceful to chaotic, all over the place,’ says Donna.
Carlo spent Christmas 2003 in Italy – supposedly with his family – and, while away, told Donna that his father had died. When he finally returned in mid-January, his physical transformation was shocking. He’d lost weight, his hair was long, his eyes looked completely different. Carlo said that at the funeral, his troubled sister had revealed that their father had sexually abused her as a child. He graphically described the acts she’d supposedly been subjected to. ‘I was devastated,’ says Donna. ‘What he was telling me was so awful. I believed it completely.’
It was the beginning of the end. Carlo refused therapy. He was distant, unreachable, close to breakdown. He moved out but continued the relationship, insisting he only needed time alone. He once messaged Donna when she was at a friend’s birthday party to say he was suicidal and Donna did all she could to support him. In November 2004 Carlo told Donna that he loved her more than she would ever know but he couldn’t make it work. She later heard through a friend of a friend that he had moved back to Italy.
There followed, says Donna, a couple of ‘dark years’ while she picked up the pieces. She changed her job, relocated to Folkestone, met someone new and had twin daughters though she is no longer with their father. ‘With Carlo, I thought I’d had this wonderful relationship that had gone horribly wrong because of terrible things,’ she ‘It was very sad but something I had no control over and I had very good memories, some of the best times in my Then, in 2015, I found out none of it was real.’
By then, Donna had read the coverage around spy cops and noticed the resemblances to her own story. ‘The way the relationship progressed and the way he left was so similar to the experiences of the other women, but I didn’t understand how I would fit into this,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t a prominent activist. I was working in a drug treatment hostel. Why would I be part of this mad story?’ In July 2015, she was messaged by an old friend, inviting her to a meeting in London. There she learned that Carlo had been positively identified as an undercover officer by activists and researchers who were investigating the scandal.
Her life became a series of shocks. ‘First, it’s the fact that, “Oh my god, he’s an undercover cop,”’ she says. ‘Then you find out he’s married, so the picture in our flat was his real son. Then you find his wife was pregnant when we were together (Carlo’s wife became pregnant with their second child towards the end of his relationship with Donna).
‘You’re playing catch-up with your life, having to reinvestigate everything as your narrative no longer makes sense. When you first find out, you think, “He was a cop but the feelings must have been genuine.” Then the penny starts dropping. No. I was work. He was getting paid to be with me.’
For months, Donna was barely able to sleep – and when she did, she had a recurring nightmare of an intruder in the house. She was easily startled, panicked by the dark. ‘You’re in this odd state of hyper-vigilance, this heightened anxiety,’ she says. ‘If my privacy had been invaded to that degree – not just my home but my body– were they still watching me? How would I ever know?’ She was also on a truth-seeking mission, intent on knowing every detail about the real Carlo.
‘It becomes an obsession,’ she says. ‘You need to know who he really was. You want any bit of truth to hold on to, good or bad.’
With the help of activists, she found that Carlo’s sister was a real person– not a recluse in Peterborough, but the owner of an upmarket deli in North London. She had a beautiful home and handsome husband. Carlo’s father hadn’t died in Bologna that Christmas – he was alive and well and living in London. That romantic birthday trip to Bologna didn’t coincide with Carlo’s real birthday – and he was a year older than she’d thought. Since leaving Donna, his first marriage had ended and he had remarried. (The wives of these undercover officers had no idea their husbands were forming intimate relationships on the job.) In March last year, Donna was paid damages and received a full apology from the Met.
Writing the book has helped her recover. ‘At first, it was just a way of getting memories on paper so I could make sense of them,’ she says. At one point, she wrote every story Carlo had told her on a Post-it note and stuck each one on a wall, pinning down each lie. Joining with other women who had been deceived into relationships with undercover officers, speaking in public, campaigning for justice and change has also kept her strong.
When I ask how the experience has changed her, she gives the best answer possible: it hasn’t. ‘I really don’t think I’m any different,’ she says. ‘It threw me and upended me but I’ve come back to being who I am. I’m not suspicious. I’ve got huge trust in people generally. For all the bad people and the bad stuff, I know more good people who are challenging it. Strong, inspiring activists who keep going and don’t get beaten.’
And what about Carlo? Would she like to meet him again? What would she say? ‘I will see him again,’ she says. ‘In 2025, he’ll be at the Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing [which, as well as taking years to gather evidence, has been delayed due to Covid] and he’ll have a lot of questions to answer.
‘In terms of confronting him myself ,I don’t know if there’s any benefit to it. These men are such good liars, what would be the point? I don’t believe I would walk away with any truth.
‘Maybe I’d ask him, “Do you even like snow globes? Did you really like dogs? What was real?”’ She laughs then pauses, before adding, ‘If he walked in now, I guess I’d ask, “How can you look at yourself in the mirror? How can you sleep at night?”’
Donna’s book, Small Town Girl: Love, Lies and the Undercover Police, will be published on 3 February by Hodder Studio in hardback, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 13 February, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Also available in ebook and audio formats