Scottish Daily Mail

A heartless honeytrap, a fraudster’s web of deceit and the tragic double ‘suicide’ of a devoted mother and her daughter


were engaged. He agreed, but Steph texted him, saying: ‘Where’s my ring? If you loved me you would have bought me a ring.’

Mr McDonough spent £1,870 on a ring he sent to Steph and received a photo message back of the ring on a woman’s hand. At the same time, Cotton put a picture of the ring on her own Facebook page and told friends she was ‘engaged to Michael McDonough’.

Her family, friends and neighbours all believed he was her fiancé and Cotton maintained that finding love was always her main motivation. Financial gain, she claimed, was secondary.

But over the period of a year, Mr McDonough gave her £4,910, a BlackBerry smartphone and an iPhone, as well as painting and wallpaperi­ng her home in Addiewell, West Lothian, and fixing flooring and skirting boards as Cotton – in various guises – blitzed him with 33,000 messages and calls.

But events took a shocking turn that even Cotton could not control when she lured Mr McDonough’s mother and sister into her sinister web.

Friends regarded both women as compassion­ate and keen to care for others. Following the breakdown of Mrs McDonough’s 28-year marriage in 2008, she had seemed reinvigora­ted and was fostering for Renfrewshi­re Council, where she once stood as a Lib Dem candidate.

Her charity worker daughter was weeks from graduating in social work and was applying for jobs. She had been shortliste­d for at least one interview and was looking forward to a summer holiday break in Basel, Switzerlan­d, with three university friends to celebrate the end of their course.

Yet, there were dark undercurre­nts running through both lives which left them more emotionall­y brittle than they might have seemed.

Mrs McDonough is thought to have struggled with depression after her marriage ended, while her daughter was said to have been prone to bouts of self-harm and was upset by the re c e nt s pl i t f r om her st e ady boyfriend.

Combined with Cotton’s mastery of emotional manipulati­on, it was a volatile mix. Certainly both women would have been distressed to think of Nicola’s brother in despair over his girlfriend’s plight. So, when Cotton claimed that saving Steph from the Biotech killers would require interventi­on by the European Court of Human Rights, Margaret and Nicola agreed to provide written testimonie­s revealing how badly the affair had affected Mr McDonough.

Nicola McDonough was stunned to receive a letter purportedl­y from Steph claiming her testimony was ‘not good enough’. The letter read: ‘Your big brother has asked you for help and it’s become apparent you could not be bothered to give it a go. Enjoy your life, Nicola, while I struggle with mine.’

Cotton then claimed the secrecy around Steph’s stem-cell treatment had been breached and that Margaret and Nicola were to blame and now faced a long jail sentence.

Both women were left ‘ petrified and tearful’ at the prospect of life behind bars. Miss McDonough was ‘in hysterics’ while her mother was ‘physically sick’ with worry.

Cotton began sending messages from a fake lawyer advising the pair to flee abroad to avoid prison – and asked for £5,000 to help with the process and a further £500 to organise a fake passport for Nicola.

In texts to Steph, Mr McDonough – his thoughts and loyalties by now scrambled – said he could never forgive his family for breaching the confidenti­ality clause.

Cotton wrote of his mother: ‘She f****** knew full well what she was doing. I can’t forgive your mum and I want your sister to be punished. That bitch can’t be trusted and she thinks nothing of destroying people’s lives. Inside she’s a mess.’

With Cotton pitting mother against son and brother against sister, the McDonough family was being torn apart.

On May 7, 2013, Cotton visited the McDonoughs’ home to keep pressure on the women to pay up. The gambit backfired spectacula­rly.

Three days later, Mrs McDonough’s red Suzuki Swift pulled into the car park at the Premier Inn in Greenock’s James Watt Way, not far from the town’s police station.

Having booked in, the women headed off in the car, returning later that night. Police suspect they spent hours visiting pharmacies as far afield as Balloch, Dunbartons­hire, 35 miles away, to buy large quantities of painkiller­s.

The following morning, the terrible e ndgame pl ay e d o ut . Mrs McDonough died soon after her blood- soaked body was found, Nicola passed away three days later.

Police were quietly investigat­ing and on May 22, 2013, officers arrived at Cotton’s home and seized her phones and laptops.

It took another year for her to appear in court and a further 16 months before she admitted what she had done. The madness of her plan – her grasping desire for a few thousand pounds – had cost the lives of two innocent women.

Her lawyer, Gerry Bann, said his client felt ‘remorse and shame for the upset and anguish her deplorable conduct caused the family’.

But Cotton showed no emotion as Sheriff Robert Fife remanded her in custody. By tormenting the women with threats of prison and personal ruin, Cotton destroyed their lives as surely as if she had delivered the fatal blow herself.

The two victims were laid to rest at Paisley’s St Mirin’s Cathedral the same month they died, with a distraught Mr McDonough acting as pallbearer for one coffin.

It later emerged his mother had made a will the day before her death leaving her £250,000 estate to her sons Kevin, 35, Michael, and 23year-old Matthew. No mention of Nicola McDonough was made.

Tormented by

threats of prison and ruin

IT was just after 7am on May 10, 2013, when a guest heading down for breakfast at the Premier Inn in Greenock made a horrific discovery. slumped unconsciou­s in the upstairs corridor of the hotel was a young woman, bleeding profusely from terrible slash wounds to her arms and neck.

staff rushed to Room 25, which charity worker Nicola McDonough had been sharing with her mother, Margaret. They were met by the macabre sight of 52-year- old Mrs McDonough, apparently lifeless and with deep arm wounds similar to her daughter’s.

The women had checked in the previous afternoon for one night but within hours Mrs McDonough was pronounced dead in the same hospital where life was slipping away from her critically ill daughter.

as hopes for Miss McDonough’s survival faded, so, it seemed, did the investigat­ion’s best chance of unravellin­g what lay behind the baffling double tragedy.

almost from the word go, police insisted they were not looking for any third party in the inquiry. Toxicology reports were expected to show high levels of painkiller­s in both women’s systems and all the evidence seemed to point to the conclusion – however unlikely – that mother and daughter had agreed a deadly pact to take their own lives. But why kill themselves? Margaret McDonough was a model of middle-class respectabi­lity – a mother of five, foster carer and former council candidate. Her 23-year- old daughter had just graduated in social work from Glasgow Caledonian University and was due to celebrate with friends on a foreign holiday.

Yet something awful had propelled them to end their lives that spring day in a budget hotel room on the banks of the Clyde less than 20 miles from their home in Paisley, Renfrewshi­re.

as the months passed, evermore fanciful suggestion­s were put forward to explain the mystery. None, however, came close to matching the truth.

For the twist was an online fraud so shockingly heartless, so jawdroppin­g in its complexity and audacity, that even those familiar with the facts still find themselves blinking in incomprehe­nsion.

The perpetrato­r – a single mother who t argeted t he McDonoughs quite by chance – concocted a bizarre web of lies that utterly convinced her victims that they had put another woman in mortal danger and both faced a 20-year prison sentence if they did not give her thousands of pounds to sort it out.

Linsey Cotton used an online dating website to weave her deadly fantasy, inventing a phantom girlfriend, a bogus stem-cell trial, a fictitious murderous doctor and a non- existent government cover-up to reel in the McDonough family.

such an outlandish plot could only have been sustained in the digital era. Cotton, 33, based her scam on a technique known as ‘catfishing’ – internet slang for someone creating a fake identity on social media.

Usually the driver for the deception is romance and the most serious injury is a broken heart.

But Cotton took subterfuge to a new level, using 15 phones, two laptops and two tablet computers to conjure up a cast of characters to maintain her charade.

at various points, she played more than a dozen virtual personalit­ies including a nurse, a barrister and government officials.

This week, more than two-and- a-half years after Margaret and Nicola McDonough were driven to their deaths, the full extent of her wicked deception was laid bare as she pleaded guilty to obtaining more than £5,000 by fraud.

Paisley sheriff Court heard that Cotton began her scheme a full year before the deaths when she joined dating site Plenty of Fish, using the name and photo of her stepsister stephanie wilson – who was oblivious to the scam.

The court heard she soon snared Mrs McDonough’s son, Michael, a 33-year-old RaF corporal who served at Lossiemout­h in Moray.

Mr McDonough saw ‘ steph’s’ image and fell for her. But when they began phoning each other, it was Cotton’s voice on the line. Once he was hooked, s he mounted a relentless campaign, with thousands of texts, emails and phone calls to con him out of money and expensive gifts.

she told him steph was having trouble with her sister’s boyfriend. Then, posing as steph’s mother, she said the boyfriend had attacked her and left her in hospital with bleeding on the brain.

soon afterwards, Cotton pretended steph had been chosen for a pioneering stem- cell trial run by a company called Biotech scotland. she made up characters who told Mr McDonough on the phone that they were visiting steph in hospital. By now, he regarded steph as his girlfriend and asked to visit her.

Eager to ensure Mr McDonough never discovered the deceit, Cotton told him she was being moved around different hospitals and couldn’t see him because she had signed a confidenti­ality agreement to take part in the trial.

Her lies lurched towards the prepostero­us. she t old Mr McDonough a Biotech doctor had tried to kill steph by poisoning her as the firm would receive a £100million payout if all the patients in the clinical trial died.

she claimed there was a government conspiracy to keep the Biotech saga secret and out of the media, and Mr McDonough believed the story entirely. It was to prove a tragic mistake.

Prosecutor Fraser Gibson told Paisley sheriff Court: ‘Michael was led to believe Biotech were trying to kill steph. He was told they were killing people off.

‘Linsey Cotton told him the scandal was so big the government were trying to cover it up. she said he was keeping steph alive with his support and Biotech were preventing him from seeing her in an attempt to kill her.’

steph – in reality Cotton – would work on Mr McDonough in marathon, late-night conversati­ons, threatenin­g to dump him if he didn’t do what she wanted. The threats caused him ‘great stress’, the court heard.

By now, Cotton had written herself into her own fantasy by convincing Mr McDonough she was steph’s closest confidante. Most of his conversati­ons were now with Cotton, playing herself. But she also continued to use steph to control him.

He agreed to take Cotton and her children on holiday to Newcastle after steph asked him to and was also tricked into buying an expensive pendant as a birthday gift. Cotton then told Mr McDonough he would have more chance of seeing steph if they

Online scam of jaw-dropping complexity He was told they were killing people

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 ??  ?? Devious: Linsey Cotton deceived the family for months
Devious: Linsey Cotton deceived the family for months
 ??  ?? Horror: Greenock’s Premier Inn where the women were found
Horror: Greenock’s Premier Inn where the women were found
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