Opening up a birthday card, Susan Hughes beamed as a delicate silver heart necklace dropped from the envelope.
She believed it to be from a man called Ste – a former club bouncer who, Susan thought, was now wooing her with gifts and cards.
In letters, Ste joked about being a “soppy git” and not being able to “imagine life” without Susan.
They planned a life together… even though it was years since they had seen each other in the flesh.
But the person sending the gifts wasn’t Ste at all. It was her best friend of 25 years, Anna Bonner, and the “romance” was all part of a long plot to with Susan out of £117,000.
Anna left Susan convinced that Ste wanted to get married – but first needed help paying for cancer treatment in the US.
It was all an elaborate lie. And mum-of-three Bonner, 40, was this month jailed after admitting fraud.
Today, Susan tells how she lost her life savings – and the ability to trust anyone – after a scam that began in 2011 and ran her ragged for nine years.
The seeds for deception go back even further – to the 1990s, when Susan DID meet a man named Ste.
Susan, a psychiatric nurse, says: “I have a soft heart, I like looking after people, and Anna took advantage of that. She manipulated me and took me for every penny I had.
“I truly believed that my money was going to help a man who I cared about deeply and wanted a future with me. When I found out that it was all a sham, I was devastated.
“Anna was my best friend, I was her chief bridesmaid, we had lived together and worked together. The disappointment is very cruel.
“She has left me with nothing.
“I now suffer with dreadful anxiety and depression and I’ve had to leave my job. I’m in debt and I’ve moved back in with my parents.
“I have serious trust issues and struggle to trust anyone I meet.”
Anna, of Liscard, Merseyside, was labeled “greedy, devious and manipulative” at Liverpool crown court.
She knew Susan had a crush on Ste when they used to visit RJ’s nightclub, in Wirral, in the late ’90s. Susan remembers: “I was flirting with him, I really fancied him. Anna told me he was her uncle de ella and I couldn’t believe my luck.
“I’d see this most weeks and I really liked him, but there was nothing more than a friendship between us. I really loved his smile from him and I felt like I liked him because I knew I could n’t have him.
Susan and Ste lost touch after the club closed in 2003. Her friendship with Anna had gone from strength-to-strength – though some of Susan’s family and friends could already see red flags.
The women met while working as carers at a supported living complex, with Susan taking her new pal under her wing.
She says: “Anna told me she came from a difficult background. I was from a very close family, and I felt sorry for her. We got on really well.”
The pair lived together and Susan was by Anna’s side when she wed at St Peter’s Church in Heswall in 2001.
Susan goes on: “Anna and I were joined at the hip. We worked together, lived together, parted together. We argued over money because I was contributing more to the household bills. Looking back, I was being isolated from my family and friends, but I didn’t see it at the time. We did all those things that best friends do. We went out partying together all the time and went on holidays to Florida, Cyprus and Blackpool.
“Anna had a big white wedding, a fancy do and a lovely day. She left me to look after her house from her while she went on honeymoon.
“Even afterwards, we stayed best friends. She had two kids and I helped out with childcare.
“Some of my other friends and my dad John thought Anna took advantage of me. But I am soft-hearted, I like looking after people, it’s part of my nature.”
So Susan didn’t think anything was amiss when she had contact from someone she believed to be Ste in 2011 – claiming to be working in Las Vegas and doing really well.
Susan, by now at university training to be a psychiatric nurse, says: “I got a flutter inside. I still had feelings for him.
“Christmas was coming and Ste messaged me that he’d really like a camcorder, which I bought for him and Anna said she’d post it to him. He was her uncle de ella and so she was sending him a Christmas parcel too. ”
Months later, Susan got a message to say Ste was returning to the UK and they arranged to meet up in Liverpool.
Anna went along too. But Ste never showed up – Susan later getting a message to say he had been arrested.
Susan – believing that she was in genuine contact with Ste – says: “He told me he was in prison because of a mix-up on a night out.
“I knew he was a good bloke and I wanted to help him.
“We exchanged gifts and cards, he sent me clothes and perfume for birthdays and Christmas. I sent him a phone and a tablet, as well as love letters and Valentine’s cards.”
Gifts and letters continued to be sent for years – with letters purporting to be from Ste calling Susan “my girl Sue” and “his doll”.
Then, in 2015, came the news Ste “had been diagnosed with testicular cancer”. Anna told Susan he was so down he had attempted suicide.
Susan says: “I was worried sick. I asked several times if I could visit him but he said he didn’t want me to see him in such a bad state, which I understood.”
Anna told Susan that Ste was fundraising for private cancer treatment in the state of Maryland.
Susan was desperate to help and started to transfer thousands of pounds into Anna’s bank account, believing she was paying for a new drug that could help Ste.
She took out loans and credit cards and worked extra shifts as a mental health nurse. Susan did n’t confide in friends or family, saying she was “blinded” by her feelings de ella for Ste.
She says: “He was so grateful. He messaged me and said he saw a future for us both. He told me he wanted to marry me.”
Over five years, Susan paid £117,000 into Anna’s account believing it was going towards Ste’s cancer treatment in the US.
It left Susan more than £30,000 in debt and, in 2019, she had a breakdown and had to leave her job.
Anna claimed to be in America looking after Ste and was still putting Susan under intense pressure to send more money.
In February 2020, and by now close to collapse, Susan eventually confided in a friend, who was immediately suspicious. They checked Anna’s social media for her and her movements for her revealed she was in Lancashire.
Susan’s friend then called the hospital where Anna apparently worked, but staff had never heard of her. Susan checked with the register office, giving what she believed was Ste’s full name and date of birth.
But she was told there was no match. Finally, Susan contacted Anna’s then ex-husband, who found a bundle of cards and gifts which Susan thought she had sent to Ste. Anna had them all.
Susan says: “It was an almighty shock.
“I felt sick as each piece of the jigsaw fell into place. I felt so hurt and foolish.
“She had abused my trust and my friendship, playing on my affections for Ste. I don’t know if he ever existed, beyond the bouncer I met a few times. There is certainly no record of him.”
As Susan began to realize the extent of the con, she went to the police in June 2020.
Anna pleaded guilty to fraud by false representation and the court heard she had kept Susan’s money, while also encouraging her to send letters, cards and gifts.
Police tried to contact Ste but he was never found.
Judge Louise Brandon jailed Anna for 28 months and imposed a restraining order for 15 years to keep Susan away.
Despite the devastation, Susan says she has comfort in knowing she “always acted with honesty and integrity and kindness” – and is holding out hope of finding love in the future.
She says: “I have a close family and many good friends and they are a great support.
“I felt so foolish when the truth came out, but I now realize the shame and the humiliation is all Anna’s.”