The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He allegedly posed as a spy to swindle a million. Now one of Britain’s most-wanted men has been nabbed.

Mark Acklom (National Crime Agency)
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Britain’s MI6 agents rarely reveal their identities to the public, preferring to operate in secrecy instead.

That was perhaps even more so the case for Mark Acklom, who has been accused of posing as a British intelligence agent and was finally arrested in Switzerland on Sunday night after a spy-movie-like cross-Europe manhunt that took advantage of the continent's lack of border checkpoints. The 45-year-old with a long criminal history is believed to have posed as both a secret agent and a banker to trick Carolyn Woods, now 61, into lending him more than $1.1 million of her life savings during a romance that lasted one year.

Acklom used the money to renovate several properties in western England before disappearing in 2012. The fugitive was named one of Britain’s most-wanted criminals soon after, but efforts to arrest him in Spain — where he later went to prison over separate property fraud charges — came too late. By the time British authorities issued a European arrest warrant for him, Acklom had been released.

Six years passed before British investigators were able to arrest Acklom last weekend, after police tracked him down to a luxury apartment in Zurich. He now awaits his extradition to Britain.

“Acklom thought he could continue to evade capture by moving around Europe, but we were determined to locate him and bring him back to this country,” said Adam Bunting, senior investigating officer with Avon and Somerset police. “Our international reach means there is no safe place to hide. He was arrested late on Saturday night after the apartment where he was living under a false name was identified.”

Europe’s borderless Schengen area ranges from countries such as Slovakia in the east to Portugal in the far west of the continent but does not extend to Britain, which is set to leave the European Union by next year. The zone may be a boon for travelers and traders, but its expansion has also eased the work of criminals, who can now access most of the continent without having to fear border checks.

Had Acklom attempted to enter Britain, he would have been immediately arrested after a warrant was issued. But by limiting his travels to Europe’s borderless areas, the fugitive was able to avoid police scrutiny for years.

Photos of Acklom living in Switzerland emerged last year and were repeatedly referenced by British critics of the European Union to argue that the bloc posed an obstacle to law enforcement. Britain never joined the Schengen area, and E.U. critics there have long argued that the vast zone has played into the hands of criminals, despite the fact that crime rates are on the decline across much of continental Europe. (Switzerland is not part of the European Union but has joined the Schengen zone and complies with most E.U. regulations.)

Eventually, Swiss authorities teamed up with British officers to locate Acklom, who now faces up to 20 fraud charges, including false representation and property removal.

While his alleged victim, Woods, can hope to receive at least some of her savings back, the loss will still probably have a lasting impact.

“The only reason I'm still here is because of my daughters,” she told Britain’s ITV two years ago.

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