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My sham life with a bigamist husband

By Deborah McAleese

A mother-of-two, whose husband has been jailed for bigamy said she has been left devastated that her three year marriage was a sham.



John Thomas Cope was sentenced at Belfast Magistrate’s Court to five months in prison after he admitted marrying Co Antrim woman Shirley Cope, nee Johnston, while still married to his second wife Leslie Ann Cope.

The deception was discovered after 48-year-old Cope, who has previous convictions for fraud, walked out on Shirley and their two young sons on Valentine’s Day to set up home with a woman he had been having a secret affair with in Wales.

“After he left I found documents hidden in a drawer and realised he had never divorced his second wife. I just felt ill when I realised my marriage had been a sham.”

As they were pronounced man and wife during an intimate ceremony in Belfast City Hall in September 2005 Shirley felt no reason to distrust her partner of four years and father of her two-year-old son.

But less than three years later the life she had known with the man she loved was exposed as a sham when she discovered Cope was a bigamist who was still married to his second wife, an adulterer who had been secretly leading multiple lives with other women and a convicted fraudster who, she claims, had run up considerable amounts of debt in her name.

The huge level of deceit began to unravel after Cope abandoned Shirley and their two young children on Valentine’s Day to set up home with a woman he had been having an affair with in Wales.

As her world came crashing down Shirley soon discovered that her ‘marriage’ was just one thread in a large web of deception that Cope had been weaving for many years, including pretending that his parents were dead.

Shirley claims the 48-year-old also left her in huge debt after running up bills in her name and writing fraudulent cheques by forging her signature. Shirley put the family home in Co Antrim up for sale to repay the debts.

She said she believes that Cope, originally from Birmingham, ran up the debts seducing other women and jetting off on foreign holidays without his family.

“I just feel totally humiliated. I feel like I have completely no identity. I don’t know who I am or who I’ve been for the past six years. If it hadn’t been for help from my family we would have been out on the streets because of the massive amounts of debt he has landed me in,” Shirley told the Belfast Telegraph.

She added: “But I feel even worse for the kids. He is their father. Some day I am going to have to tell them what sort of a man their father really is. They loved him unconditionally.”

I just feel totally humiliated. I feel I have completely no identity. I don’t know who I am...

Shirley met Cope when he was working as a salesman for a company that supplied the dental laboratory she worked at in Belfast.

They became friends and began dating in 2002. Their first son was born in 2004 and the couple got married in 2005 at a civil ceremony in Belfast with a reception in the Wellington Park Hotel.

“It was a lovely day and I was very happy. I knew he was married twice before and he had told me he was divorced. Before the wedding day I asked him about his decree absolute and he told me his solicitor had faxed it directly over to the City Hall. I had no reason not to believe him,” Shirley said.

“On the wedding day he had no friends or family on his side which, looking back, was strange. But he never had any contact with anyone back in England.

“He told me his parents were dead, but I found out later they actually died in 2006 when we were still married.”

Shirley said she believed she had a good marriage until things started to go wrong at the end of 2006 when the police called to their home saying they were probing possible financial fraud involving her husband who — unknown to her — has past convictions for fraud and dishonesty. Investigations into the fresh fraud allegations are continuing.

Shortly after the fraud probe was launched by police Cope fled the marital home, telling Shirley in a note that he had left her.

Shirley was left devastated. However, he was soon begging her to take him back and after a few months she agreed to give him another chance. But on Valentine’s Day he left her and their two children once again, breaking the news in another note.

After he had gone Shirley could not have prepared herself for what she was about to discover.

In a plastic bag at the back of a chest of drawers were divorce papers from Cope’s second wife, Leslie Ann Cope, which he had refused to sign.

“I just felt ill. I was absolutely devastated. It just felt unreal. My marriage had been a complete sham. He had also left a considerable amount of debt on our joint account and had written fraudulent cheques over a period of four weeks. He had been using me. Looking back, yes there were a lot of warning signs. I never met any family members or friends.”

Shirley did not set eyes on Cope again until he appeared in court in Belfast last week charged with bigamy. She said she is disappointed with the five-month sentence he received.

“I felt absolutely nothing when I saw him in court. I was expecting to feel upset or angry but I didn’t. The only thing I did think was, ‘You are our children’s father and you have not seen them for eight months’.

“I am disgusted at the sentence he got. He’ll only do about 10 weeks for what he did to us and well then be free to get on with his life. I have been left with this name (Cope) that I don’t know what to do with and to raise two children on my own,” she said.

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