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Drowning of wealthy heiress was ‘acquisitive killing’, court hears

Paula Leeson drowned in 2017 (Handout/PA)
Paula Leeson drowned in 2017 (Handout/PA)

The swimming pool drowning of a wealthy heiress whose husband was cleared of her murder was an “acquisitive killing”, a court heard.

Convicted fraudster Donald McPherson, 50, was ordered to be found not guilty of the 2017 murder of Paula Leeson, 47, on a judge’s direction to the jury halfway through his trial in 2021.

While cleared of murder, Ms Leeson’s family have brought legal proceedings against McPherson at Manchester Civil Courts of Justice, asking a judge to rule he unlawfully killed her by drowning in a holiday swimming pool so he forfeits any legal entitlement to benefiting from his late wife’s will and estate, worth £4.4 million.

The hearing on Tuesday heard McPherson described as a “Walter Mitty” who had changed his name multiple times, had 32 convictions spanning 15 years in three countries, and whose previous wife and their child died in a house fire.

McPherson, who denied murder, had taken out “secret” life insurance policies on Ms Leeson worth £3.5 million.

Lesley Anderson KC, representing the Leeson family, told the court in Manchester: “We submit what happened here was an acquisitive killing.

“The systematic setting up of policies was deliberate. This was in his mind since 2013. That’s why he’s planned Denmark.

“He has a propensity to commit offences and then try to move on.

“The number of lies goes beyond Walter Mitty territory.

“What you have is a consistent pattern of dishonesty in furtherance of a financially acquisitive objective and to protect himself when he needs to.”

McPherson told police he awoke to find Ms Leeson face down in the shallow swimming pool at a holiday cottage in remote western Denmark he had booked for the couple, on June 6 2017.

Ms Leeson, who was 5ft 5in tall, drowned in the pool that was under 4ft deep, though she could swim and was an otherwise healthy mother-of-one.

Lawyers for the Leeson family argue to save herself from drowning she could simply have stood up, so must have been choked before being put into the water unconscious.

The next day, McPherson began taking thousands from her bank accounts to clear his debt and days later joined Widowed And Young, a group described as “Tinder for widows”.

On Tuesday, the second day of the civil hearing, Ms Anderson told the court more details of McPherson’s past, including his involvement in an £11.8 million fraud.

He had lied on his CV to land jobs trading equities in banking, she said, including at Citibank in London and in 2005 was arrested in Australia and extradited to Germany, where he was jailed for three years after admitting involvement in an £11.8 million fraud against Commerzbank, with McPherson standing to gain his cut of £2.5 million.

While in jail in Germany in 2006, police came to his cell to tell him his common law wife and three-year-old daughter had died in a fire in Australia – which McPherson said was the result of criminal activity to blackmail him.

In a prosecution at Winchester Crown Court in 2011, linked to the Commerzbank fraud, McPherson told the judge: “I got away with nothing for doing what I did.”

McPherson, who was born Alexander James Lang and originally from New Zealand, met Paula Leeson in 2013, using a “cover story” of being an orphan to hide his past.

He claimed to be a property developer and she oversaw the skip hire part of her family’s successful ground-working business her father Willy had built up in Sale, Greater Manchester. after emigrating from County Wicklow, Ireland, in the 1960s.

Ms Leeson and her brother Neville stood to inherit the business.

After a “whirlwind romance” the couple had a no-expenses-spared wedding at Peckforton Castle in Cheshire in 2014.

At the time Ms Leeson met the person she knew as Donald McPherson his legal name was Donald Anderson, as he had changed his name multiple times to “re-invent himself”, the court heard.

He carried wads of cash in elastic bands, ostensibly a “man of means” but in fact a “man of straw” who at the time of his wife’s death was “running out of money” which “super-charged the financial motive”, the court heard.

But his murder trial was dramatically halted in March 2021 by Mr Justice Goose, ruling there was insufficient evidence for jurors to safely convict as an accidental death could not be ruled out.

After he was acquitted, in a statement through his solicitors, McPherson denied any involvement in his wife’s death, saying it was a “tragic accident”.

He is not present at the hearing and believed to be living in the South Pacific.

The hearing continues.