The trial of a failed property developer accused of drowning his wife to cash in on life insurance policies worth £3.5million collapsed yesterday – to the anguish of her family. Donald McPherson, 47, was cleared of killing Paula Leeson despite 17 separate pieces of circumstantial evidence which created ‘clear and obvious suspicion against the defendant’. Mr Justice Goose told a court that it was ‘clearly more likely’ McPherson had drowned Miss Leeson, 47, than her death had been an accident. But he said the prosecution had been unable to disprove the ‘reasonable’ possibility that there was an innocent explanation. Here we reveal the extraordinary story behind this shocking case
Paula Leeson’s family might never find out how she met her death in a swimming pool at a remote holiday chalet in Denmark four years ago.
But their abiding emotions as her husband’s trial was abruptly halted without a conviction this week, were of shock and utter disbelief.
When Donald McPherson, accused of drowning his wife, was cleared of murder and walked free from Manchester Crown Court, her family, there to hear the judge’s ruling, wept openly.
Miss Leeson’s father Willy shouted through sobs: ‘Oh God! Oh God! Unbelievable,’ while her mother Betty was too consumed by tears to speak.
Mr Justice Goose had just informed the courtroom that he was stopping the prosecution and as he did so, Willy Leeson could not contain his anger. Looking across to the dock he shouted: ‘Shame on you Don!’
Then, directing his fury at the judge, Miss Leeson’s brother Neville shouted: ‘God Almighty. You are making a big mistake.’ After the courtroom was cleared, the family continued to react angrily. ‘I cannot believe it, I just cannot believe it,’ Willy Leeson sobbed.
Donald McPherson, 47 (right), was cleared of killing Paula Leeson (left) despite 17 separate pieces of circumstantial evidence which created ‘clear and obvious suspicion against the defendant’
The Leeson family did not attend court yesterday to hear the Crown Prosecution Service declare it was not going to challenge the ruling, having been warned this outcome – one they were dreading – was likely.
Reflecting on their daughter’s marriage, there is little doubt the Leesons rue the day Don McPherson came into their lives.
Willy Leeson – a successful businessman who ran his own civil engineering firm in Worsley, Greater Manchester – was blind-sided. With no knowledge of McPherson’s past, to both Willy and Betty it seemed he had appeared ‘from nowhere’.
Willy, who had emigrated from Ireland to set up his business in the 1960s, and overseen its expansion into a million pound enterprise, was protective of his only daughter. They were a close-knit family and Paula, always cautious with money, was devoted to the son she’d had as a teenager.
Working in the family business, she focused her energies on handling invoices. Her pleasures were modest ones: a weekly Saturday visit to the hairdresser with her mum Betty, then a trip to the shops.
But this financial prudence seems to have been abandoned after she was introduced to the stocky New Zealand-born property developer via a client of her family’s firm. It seems she was quickly besotted with him.
After ‘whirlwind’ romance, they married at Peckforton Castle – a stately pile set in rolling Cheshire countryside – in June 2014 in what a court this month heard had been ‘a grand affair’ and ‘no expense was spared’.
The jury was told that no relatives of McPherson attended the ceremony, an omission the groom explained by falsely claiming he was an orphan or had grown up in a foster home.
The couple bought a £285,000 three-bedroom detached house in the comfortable Manchester suburb of Sale, which, since Miss Leeson’s death has been sold and is now worth around £650,000.
In keeping with the family’s closeness, the marital home, was just round the corner from Miss Leeson’s parents’ house, a gated £1million property in one of the area’s most sought-after roads.
Luxury off-roaders were parked in the driveway of their home yesterday but there was no answer on the intercom.
A woman who answered the phone at the family business said they were not planning on making a public comment on the collapse of the trial. From the outset, it seems, McPherson was intent on securing his future prosperity in the event of his wife’s death.
Within three years of the wedding, he had purchased no fewer than seven life insurance policies for the couple, paying premiums of more that £460-a-month – despite being overdrawn himself, the jury heard.
His lifestyle, however, did not match his limited means. He took flying lessons, paying for the sessions in cash, while his debts accrued.
He was also, it seems, deceiving his wife. According to one of his flying instructors, when Miss Leeson rang him during a lesson he would lie that he was working on one of his properties.
And then there is the deepening conundrum of that holiday that led to Miss Leeson’s death. Despite the fact that his 47-year-old wife ‘hated’ swimming and preferred city breaks, in 2017 McPherson – by now £65,000 in debt – booked them a property with an indoor pool in a remote part of Denmark, Manchester Crown Court heard.
Before leaving for the trip, she told her family she wasn’t even planning on buying a swimming costume, jurors were told.
But on the day they were due to fly home, McPherson called an ambulance, saying he had found his wife’s lifeless, fully-clothed, body in the 4ft deep water.
A paramedic called to the scene in Nørre Nebel on June 6, 2017, was surprised to see McPherson’s ‘very bad’ efforts at resuscitating her, the court heard.
Miss Leeson, who had been in robust good health but for a minor tooth complaint, was pronounced dead. And after breaking the devastating news to her horrified family back home in Sale, McPherson checked into a hotel, where he allegedly began transferring money ‘left, right and centre’ from a joint account operated by his wife – around £20,000 in total.
Paula Leeson’s family might never find out how she met her death in a swimming pool at a remote holiday chalet in Denmark (pictured) four years ago
He finished the evening by ‘tucking into’ a steak dinner, prosecutor David McLachlan, QC, said.
Before returning to the UK, McPherson allegedly set up an account with online support group Widowed and Young which the jury heard he later referred to as ‘like a Tinder for widows’.
The jury was also told that later he sent an email from another alias bragging about how he was going to spend the windfall accrued from the life insurance policies – thought to be around £3.5million – on expensive travel.
The motive for the killing was ‘the oldest and simplest one in the book’, Mr McLachlan told jurors.
A pathologist in Denmark initially concluded she had drowned accidentally – despite 13 injuries being found on her body including bruises and grazes to her head, arms and legs. As a result the case was closed by the Danish authorities.
However, after British police provided further information, Danish pathologist Professor Peter Leth changed his conclusion and said the cause could not be determined.
Giving evidence at McPherson’s murder trial, he said he had found more injuries than he would expect to find from a resuscitation effort.
Crucially, however, under cross-examination he accepted there was nothing to rule out the possibility that these were caused during efforts to rescue her after she had fainted and fallen in – at a time when Mr McPherson claimed to have been asleep in bed.
The trial’s collapse means there is likely to be no closure for Miss Leeson’s family.
But after being left reeling by the phone call from McPherson to say she had drowned, her brother Neville turned detective.
The court was told that having successfully persuaded McPherson to hand over his wife’s iPhone, Mr Leeson Jnr correctly guessed the passcode – it was their dad’s date of birth – and discovered photographs and messages from the holiday had been deleted.
McPherson was interviewed four times, denying killing his wife. He suggested her injuries were caused when she ‘banged her head on the side of the pool’ when he was trying to pull her out.
He insisted she had known about the life insurance policies which he said had been set up to cover mortgage debts.
The jury were told that as part of the police investigation it emerged that McPherson had constructed elaborate falsehoods about his past life. He was said to have lied about his upbringing: far from being an orphan he had, in fact, been born Alexander James Lang, and raised by loving parents.
His father Laurence Lang – known as Laurie – worked as an electrician in Manchester in the 1960s before deciding to ‘try his luck’ in New Zealand. There he met a local woman named Pamela, settling near Auckland where they went on to have two daughters and a son while Laurie worked in a maximum security prison.
Exactly how Alex Lang became Donald McPherson in the decades after he left New Zealand aged about 19 is unclear – he is understood to have used at least one other alias, Rob Jones.
Despite the fact that his 47-year-old wife ‘hated’ swimming and preferred city breaks, in 2017 McPherson booked them a property with an indoor pool (pictured) in a remote part of Denmark, Manchester Crown Court heard
So assiduously has he covered his tracks, it seems, media reporting on the murder trial in New Zealand resorted to running online appeals for information about his earlier life.
Those who knew him in New Zealand told the Daily Mail he was always business-minded, dabbling in stocks and shares.
One recalled how his mother ‘treated Alex as their golden child – he was never punished or rebuked and his sisters were never allowed to criticise him’.
‘For instance, he had a paper round but burned all the papers several times and Pam thought it was just Alex being clever. He also took money for gardening and weeding for neighbours but never did the work.’
A school friend recalled him as ‘bright’ and ‘studious’ with a fascination for computers.
What relatives regarded as ‘a blind spot’ – a refusal by his parents to countenance that Alex was capable of deceit – is understood to have caused a rift with his sisters.
However to add to the mystery, a hearing ahead of the murder trial was told he had a conviction for ‘serious’ dishonesty in around 2008.
About two years later he was on a holiday in Egypt and it was here that he met Mark Dickens, a self-employed builder who was a client of the Leesons, and through Mr Dickens his path crossed with Miss Leeson’s. Working for her father’s business, she was described by friends as ‘always immaculately turned out’ and generous ‘to a fault’.
McPherson moved to the Sale area, buying up properties before doing them up and selling them on.
Prior to the wedding, he owned eight properties worth more than £900,000, the jury were told, but it later emerged in court that this ostensibly impressive property portfolio was, in reality, heavily mortgaged, and he remained deep in debt.
‘Donald McPherson wasn’t really a man of means,’ Mr McLachlan told the jury. ‘He was more a man of straw.’
McPherson, meanwhile, was said during the trial to have told a friend he ‘resented’ the wealth of Miss Leeson’s parents, saying she and her brother would be worth ‘millions’ when they died.
In addition to the new joint life insurance products he took out, two existing policies which benefited Miss Leeson’s son were also amended to set up a trust controlled by McPherson, the trial heard.
Jurors were told that Miss Leeson’s will had also been amended to include McPherson as one of its beneficiaries and allegedly this change involved forged documents. While handwriting experts could not say who forged them, McPherson was the only person who stood to gain, the court heard.
In addition, in the run-up to the Danish trip, the court heard McPherson bought two travel insurance policies and upgraded his bank account to one with free travel cover, meaning three policies were in place.
The couple flew from Manchester Airport to Copenhagen on June 3, 2017 before driving 200 miles to Nørre Nebel on the North Sea coast.
Three days later McPherson called an ambulance, saying he had found his wife in the pool.
Denying murder, McPherson claimed he had been unable to pull her to safety due to a bad shoulder. However, the court heard days before the trip he had allegedly been carrying scaffolding planks around without assistance.
In a statement issued via his solicitor, McPherson said: ‘A tragic accident is what it was and it saddens me, deeply, that the events in question should ever have been seen differently and that I was ever suspected of playing a part in Paula’s death.’
The judge’s decision to order the jury to return a verdict of not guilty leaves the Leeson family facing agonising uncertainty – while McPherson will now find out if the way is clear for him to claim a life-changing fortune.