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From the file

Sweet Bobby | How well do you know the person you love?

Episode 1: Sliding Doors

Episode 1: Sliding Doors

Kirat is a successful marketer and local radio presenter. Online, she’s contacted by a man she vaguely knows called Bobby, and they start chatting. Slowly, they become close… and she’s reeled in to a scam of epic proportions


Credits

Gary Marshall – Producer
Claudia Williams – Assistant producer and additional reporting
Karla Patella – Sound design
Basia Cummings – Executive producer


Transcript

Kirat Assi: This statement is as best as I can remember, given that all the communication was constant and bombarding… 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: This story… the one you’re about to hear… it’s a love story. 

Kirat Assi: … I meant it from the bottom of my heart.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: It’s a screwed-up kind of love story… filled with death, lies and witness protection programmes. 

But still, it’s a love story.

Until it isn’t. 

Kirat Assi: When all conversations are aligned by date you can also see how consuming the bombardment was… matters were somehow always urgent, sensitive and/or too serious. Much ghosting and gaslighting taking place.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: This story starts 11 years ago – back in 2010. But for me, I only got to hear about it recently. 

I’m an investigative reporter. This summer I was working on a story about online porn, and I’d arranged to meet a source for lunch. 

We met at a restaurant just off Oxford Street. He had some files he wanted to show me. 

I remember it was early June. London was just coming out of the Covid 19 lockdown, there was a buzz in the air. 

So anyway, the source and I – we sit outside and order tapas. And the source shows me the information, and it’s good.

But it was right at the end, when we were having coffee, that something else happened.

The source hands me a document. A witness statement. Nothing to do with porn. 

​​Kirat Assi: The events in this account are simply the general gist of events over a period of a decade but things were happening practically daily… 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: And, as he passes it across the table, he leans in and says something like: “This is the craziest case I’ve ever seen.”

And you know what? He was right. 

In more than 15 years in journalism – covering everything from tax avoidance to terrorism – I’ve never seen anything like it. 

Kirat Assi: Again, the pressure on me was constant. My freedom and independence became less and less, while the power and control over me became increasingly constant and intense…

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: This is the story of a woman called Kirat and a man called Bobby. 

And it’s about how Bobby manipulated Kirat over 10 years.  

He destroyed her career… 

Kirat Assi, voice note: What can I do to help you sweetheart?

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: … her friendships… 

Harvy: She went from being a vibrant person to being a shadow of a person. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: … her chance to have a family…  

Kirat Assi: Why didn’t you stop?

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: … and almost her life. 

Kirat Assi: You could have stopped, but you chose not to. Why?

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: This may have started out a love story… but it ends up as something much darker. 

I’m Alexi Mostrous, and from Tortoise Media, you’re listening to Sweet Bobby. 

Episode one: Sliding doors.

Kirat Assi, on the radio: This is Desi radio on 1602 AM and satellite channel 01698, it’s the Bhangra Roadshow with myself Kirat keeping you company. I say all the way until six there’s not that long to go, especially when you’re having fun…

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Kirat Assi. She’s a presenter on her local community radio station: Desi Radio. 

She’s on every Thursday from 2-6. 

Kirat Assi, on the radio: Oh, it’s your dad’s birthday. What’s his name? 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: There’s a lot going on but as you can hear, Kirat is a total pro. 

Kirat Assi, on the radio: Okay, I’ll definitely get one on for him…

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Kirat’s full name is Harkirat Kaur Assi – but everyone calls her Kirat.

Kirat Assi: You just don’t know where the time goes when you’re doing it. You’re occupied. You can’t think about anything else. You don’t have time.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: And I think radio is an obvious choice for Kirat. She’s a natural talker. In fact, the first time I met her, our meeting lasted 8 hours straight. 

[Clip of conversation and laughter]

By early 2010, Kirat had been on Desi Radio for a few years. She was 30 years old and she had a busy life.  

Kirat Assi: I had so much going on. I’m not saying my life was all fun and games, there were difficult things – as anyone does having in their life. But yeah… prospects. There were prospects and, and I was looking forward to it. There was so much to be explored. I could see my roadmap then, which is in stark contrast to now.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Kirat and I – we’re basically the same age. And I remember being 30… old enough to know what I wanted, but young enough not to care that much. 

And it was the same with her. She was happy with her job, thinking about starting a family. But having fun too…

Kirat Assi: There used to be a regular night called Bombay Bronx. It used to be once a month and all of us would kind of get together no matter where we were, what we were doing, we’d all end up there. That was a standard. You go there, you chill out, have a laugh. Come back four or five o’clock in the morning. Still get up in the morning to go to the office at eight o’clock… that was the standard! Lots of nights like that. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: That’s not to say that life was all plain sailing. It wasn’t. Kirat’s parents weren’t getting along that well. An uncle she had been close to had become ill. And her main job in events… that was quite stressful. 

But it was nothing she couldn’t handle.

And it was then, in November 2010, she gets a message on Facebook. 

Bobby, Facebook message: Hey Harkirat, hope you’re well? It’s JJ’s brother…. hope you got the message from Simran regarding a note that he had written? He’d always put in a good word for you – you got his better side, looked up to you as a big sister as he told us. Kind regards, Bobby.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Kirat wasn’t expecting it. 

But it wasn’t totally random either

Kirat had a second cousin called Simran. She was about 17 at this point – more than a decade younger than Kirat. 

Simran was dating a guy called JJ, who was the same age – still in his teens. 

In college, Siman and JJ broke up, and JJ reached out to Kirat for advice on Facebook. Kind of treating her like a big sister. Asking her: how could he win Simran back? 

So JJ, the 17-year-old, and Kirat started messaging each other… a few messages a week. 

And then suddenly – out of nowhere, in August 2010 – JJ dies. He just drops dead one day, apparently from some sort of allergic reaction. 

Kirat didn’t know how to react. I mean, it was shocking news… but she barely knew him.

And it’s not like there was much she could do. 

So she got on with her life. And it was about a month after that that Bobby – JJ’s brother – messages her. 

Kirat Assi: And he contacted me to say, you know, thank you for being so kind to my brother and all that kind of thing. And it was, you know, it was that kind of thing. And obviously, you know, gave my condolences, ended up speaking to the brother. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Kirat hadn’t met Bobby in person at this point but she’d heard his name before.  

They come from the same community. Kirat and most of the other characters in this story, they’re Sikhs.  

And the Sikh community in the UK – well, it’s extremely close. 

Kirat Assi: Everyone knows of each other in our community and news spreads like wildfire. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: And there was another important connection between Bobby and Kirat. 

Kirat Assi: You’ve got the whole Kenya community, two degrees of separation. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t know this before, but in the last 150 years or so, a lot of Indians have migrated to Kenya. 

And many British Sikhs today still have close links to Kenya – and their families still have close links to each other. 

So when Bobby messaged Kirat on Facebook – Kirat knew of him vaguely through the Sikh community, and through friends and family in Kenya. 

This was someone she just instinctively trusted. Plus, she could see from his Facebook page that he had been to some of the same events she’d been at, and that he was already friends with some of her cousins…

So far, so very normal. 

Except, it wasn’t normal. 

And now I’m going to do something you don’t really do in a psychological thriller – which, if this was a film, it definitely would be. 

I’m going to give you a spoiler. 

Trusting Bobby back then was understandable. Normal. Unremarkable. He was just a friend of a friend on Facebook. 

But for Kirat, it turned out to be a life-changing mistake. 

You may have guessed already but Bobby isn’t who he says he is. 

Bobby was a character. One at the centre of a sophisticated catfishing operation, which means someone was pretending to be Bobby online – deliberately drawing Kirat into a web of lies. 

And every expert, lawyer, and criminologist I’ve shown this case to – well, it’s blown their minds. 

[Montage: People expressing surprise and responding to the case]

I’m going to tell you the whole story of how, and why, this happened. 

But for now, you need to know how it all started. 

All Kirat had in front of her at this moment, in 2010, were a few Facebook messages. 

From Bobby, a handsome cardiologist, friends with some of her friends, who was a few years younger than she was, talking to her sweetly about his baby brother. 

Kirat Assi: He was the good big brother who did everything right. You know, he’s the goody goody and he can’t do anything wrong. You know, he’s always doing the right thing by the family.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: But over time, the conversation started to change. 

Kirat Assi: He started talking to me more regularly. And things were going wrong in his life. He was confiding in me.

Bobby, Facebook message: Sorry to disturb you… I just needed help and thought of you first.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: They began messaging more and more. Their friendship became a little closer. 

Kirat Assi: What can you do? You’d be kind to somebody, right, who’s just lost his brother? I didn’t have any reason to question it. You know, we know the family exists. Again, there’s mutual people who were on there. Obviously our families are connected. While I didn’t know him personally there were people in between that I knew personally. It was a respectable family… I didn’t have any reason to doubt it. And again, there was no reason to think that he was hitting on me because he was a married man. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: And Kirat learned a few more things about Bobby… 

Kirat Assi: I think that his wife was expecting a baby. He was super, super happy. He was working in a hospital at the time and in the downtimes, he messaged me on Facebook and we had conversations about what he wanted to call the baby, if it’s a boy or a girl and I did find it a bit strange that he was talking to me about it because it’s something you should be talking to his wife about. 

Alexi Mostrous: How many times a day were you speaking to him at this point or a week? 

Kirat Assi: I mean, we weren’t talking every day. It was just whenever he approached me so to speak. And the thing is that it wasn’t like a Facebook messenger situation necessarily. So there’d be like a long message from him, then there’d be a long response from me – almost like we were pen pals almost. So it’s not instant communication like you think of it right now.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: I’ve read and listened to tens of thousands of messages between Kirat and Bobby. Literally hours of my life, I’ve spent in their world. 

And something that is interesting to me at this point… is that Kirat wasn’t being bombarded with messages from Bobby. 

Not at this early stage, at least. Bobby’s approach was way more subtle than that. 

Kirat Assi: Agin, you know, I never felt the need to ask for a phone number or anything like that. I didn’t know where he lived. I didn’t know anything to be honest. And I wasn’t curious either, because I didn’t really need to know. You know, I had my own life going on here. I was just being a shoulder to cry on.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Over the months… Bobby revealed that his happy life was imploding. He separated from his wife. Argued with his family. And it was all taking its toll. 

Bobby, Facebook message: Everything is just becoming all too much, work too. Just taken time off, made a few decisions. But I really wouldn’t be where I am, taken the path without your wise words of wisdom. Drinks are on me when I’m back, make that two rounds since I missed your birthday too.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: As Bobby shared so openly with her, Kirat started to open up about her own life. Intimate stuff… about her on/off partner and how he was being difficult. 

Now, I’ve noticed that whenever I tell Kirat’s story to someone – my wife, my friends – there’s a divide. 

Many people over the age of 40 struggle to see how she could become so close to someone she’d never met. 

But anyone younger – they get it. If you’ve grown up in an online world, it’s obvious that online relationships can be as close as any other.

Think about starting a conversation with a total stranger in real life. You’re working with really limited data.  

But if you chat to someone online, you’ve got a wealth of information at your fingertips. Their politics, their age, how they behave…

And you can leverage that to become very close to someone – very quickly. 

Which is cool… but also, open to manipulation. 

Harvy: So I’m Harvy. I met Kirat for the first time when I started school at seven years old, and so I’ve known her since . So we’ve known each other for about 35 years now. So I guess you could say she started off as a school friend, then she became a family friend, and now she’s more like a sister to me. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Kirat’s best friend Harvy was there from the beginning. She started hearing about this new friend, Bobby, and was instinctively concerned. 

Alexi Mostrous: Can you remember the first time that she mentioned him? 

Harvy: Yeah, it, it was quite weird because I thought even when he was her friend that she would talk to, it was a weird relationship.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Bobby had just left his wife, his life was a mess. Was that really what Kirat needed right now? 

But Harvy also knew something about her friend. 

Kirat was the sort of person to go above and beyond. To help anyone that asked for it. 

Which… made her vulnerable. 

Harvy: Again, this is Kirat all over. Like, if she feels people need her, she will be there 100%. And that’s what it was. It was like, she really felt like they needed her. And so she was there, like she would help anyone in need. Even if she hadn’t met these people physically, she felt needed and she did as best as she could.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Harvy was worried about where this was all going.

And as it turns out, she was right to be. 

Kirat, voice note: Why, why do you want to do that to me… why are you so adamant about hurting me? 

[Clip from Sliding Doors trailer]

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: You know the film Sliding Doors

[Clip from Sliding Doors trailer]

It’s a 1990s classic starring Gwyneth Paltrow. And it’s a film all about a single moment really, and what life would have been like if things had gone a little differently. 

The film opens with Helen, the main character, rushing to catch a train home – but she’s a second too late. She misses it. 

That’s version one. 

And then the film rewinds. And this time, in version two, Helen does make the train. So she’s home just in time to catch her boyfriend cheating on her. 

The film is about how a split second can change everything. Obviously… real life doesn’t work like that. 

Except for Kirat, it sort of did. 

Her sliding doors moment came in the spring of 2011. A moment when she brushed right up against the truth, but didn’t quite grasp it hard enough.  

It was about five months after she started talking to Bobby, on her best friend Harvy’s hen night. 

They’d left London and had gone down to the seaside in Brighton for a night on the town.

Kirat Assi: So we went out and yeah, it was a really cheesy club called Lola’s and I think it was Hawaiian themed, like palm trees, Hawaiian shirt kind of club.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: It was a bit of a dive. Sticky floors, low ceilings, lots of noise. Still, the girls didn’t care. They were there to have fun. 

Kirat Assi: And I think that was the idea, it’s supposed to be a themed night and everyone had a few, had a good laugh, sang along to all the songs as you do on a hen night. I’m usually the responsible one so there were a couple of others who didn’t drink either, so we were the responsible crew looking after the very drunk crew.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: I can picture them in this club, dancing, tequila shots. 

But then this typical Brighton Hen night takes an unexpected turn. Quite a sinister turn, given all that we know…

Kirat Assi: And then well into the night, I think it’s probably about 1:00… 1:30 maybe. I remember speaking to the girls, I think I was speaking to Harvy and one of the others, and suddenly a figure walks past. And it’s quite unusual, a guy in a turban stands out a mile. That’s the whole point of wearing a turban. And it was Bobby. It was really Bobby. And I was like, really shocked. And I remember looking around to Harvy, who was the hen and probably not in the best state of mind that time, I remember saying oh my god Harvy, it’s Bobby I can’t believe it. And with him was someone else, his friend. 

And they were walking past and they went to a raised part of the club, and I just went… I’m going to go and say hello and I followed them. I was like Bobby and he answered, he was like, yeah, hi, kind of thing. And then, he wasn’t necessarily friendly, but he wasn’t unfriendly. He just acknowledged me. 

And I was talking to him and it was loud, it was a club and people were a bit happy and lairy and it was just noisy. And I was trying to have a conversation with him and I was trying to explain to him it’s me, it’s Kirat – Harkirat? And he’s just like looking at me, like… and he was like, I don’t know. I don’t remember. I don’t know. And I didn’t want to embarrass him, and I thought maybe he’s had a few too many to drink cause he looked a bit kind of spaced out. He was quite serious, you know, he wasn’t, like, panicked or anything. He was just like… I don’t know. 

And because he’s always been so respectful, I didn’t want to embarrass him. And I went, it’s okay, don’t worry. And I walked back. I was just like, wow, what’s he doing here? I didn’t know he lived in Brighton.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: It was a mad coincidence. 

And it all makes me feel a bit sick. Because I know what’s coming. And I want to go back in time and shout at her: “He isn’t who you think he is”. 

Because at this point, Bobby and Kirat were just online friends. 

They’d only been messaging for a few months. No real damage had been done. 

And I’m thinking… if only the club had been a bit quieter, or they’d met a few hours earlier. 

Kirat could have worked out the truth. And maybe she could have saved herself from more than a decade of pain. 

But that didn’t happen. Kirat pushed her way back through the crowd and rejoined her hen party.

Bobby was drunk, she was thinking. I’m not going to embarrass him. 

Still, I find it a bit weird that she didn’t press Bobby harder that night. 

After all, this is a guy who’s been messaging you for five months or so, and then acts like he doesn’t know you?

But there was another reason Kirat was ready to let it slide. Bobby wasn’t the only person she was talking to. 

There were other people Kirat knew… who said they also knew Bobby. Who backed up what he was saying. People she had no reason to doubt. 

Kirat Assi: Thinking back on that night now. I do think that I should have questioned things more. If I’d just pushed him and said, come on, it’s me and made him talk to me… I might not have had to go through the last 10, 13 years that I have. It could have been so different.

But what do you do at one o’clock in the morning, in the middle of a club? 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: That’s not quite the end of episode 1. 

There’s something else I need to tell you. 

After Brighton, Bobby distanced himself from Kirat. He moved to Australia and got engaged to a new partner. 

Kirat was invited to his wedding in Kenya. She couldn’t make it but saw pictures of the ceremony on Facebook.

Meanwhile, she got on with her life. She took a job at St Mary’s University in London organising events. She helped out at the London Olympics in 2012

And then, in November 2013, two years after she met Bobby in Brighton, she was doing her radio show and something caught her eye. 

Kirat Assi: Because I used to take messages from callers on Facebook, I used to have all the screens open and in the feed while I was there… it appeared in the feed that Bobby had been shot in Kenya. And there had been a picture of him in hospital with loads of wires on him sitting… it was like a half shot. And one of his friends had posted saying, “this has been – dah dah dah – happened to my friend or whatever…”. And obviously he’d been tagged, which is why it appeared in my feed. And I remember being in my show and just being like, whoa.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Bobby had been shot. Or at least that’s what it said on Facebook. 

Over the next few weeks, she followed posts that said he was in and out of a coma. Kirat felt totally helpless – stuck in another country. 

But one of Bobby’s friends kept her updated. So did Bobby’s new wife. 

So did Kirat’s cousin, Simran – who happened to be in Kenya at the time. 

For weeks, Kirat was on tenterhooks, waiting for information, waiting to find out if he was okay. 

And then… Bobby woke up. 

Bobby, Facebook message: I remember that you used to by my brother’s friend? He had told me lots about you. Please help where you can, feels as though I’ve just lost a great relationship.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: That was one of the first messages Bobby sent Kirat after he came out of his coma. 

He said he’d lost his memory – or at least, part of it. But a few weeks after he woke up, Bobby started feeling unwell again. 

Bobby, Facebook message: I have a massive headache again. Just waiting for yet more scan results. Definitely something not right if morphine can’t keep the pain away.

Kirat Assi: He’d gone back into a coma, basically, after he’d had a headache and they’d taken him back in, and I’d been the last person to speak to him, like, message him, have communication with him.

So we knew that. And then I remember I got sick that day. I think I had food poisoning that day and my partner had picked me up and taken me to his and I had been sort of not feeling very well. I think I was asleep. And… when we got the message that Bobby had passed away. 

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: For Kirat, it was pretty devastating. 

But for me I’m thinking… this is really weird. 

If Bobby is at the centre of a catfishing operation, the character at the heart of it all, why did the person pulling the strings kill him off?

Bobby was the main link into Kirat. Without Bobby, how would the catfish work?

Alexi Mostrous: How did you get the message?

Kirat Assi: On messenger. And it came in a group as well. And the group had loads of people. Um, there were 39 of us in the group, so I didn’t know lots of those people, or I know, knew of them, some of them. The cousins. 

Alexi Mostrous: So you were added to a Facebook group with 39 people?

Kirat Assi: Yeah, there were 39 people in that group.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: I remember this conversation with Kirat, and not just because I was puzzled about Bobby’s death. 

It was that number at the end. The Facebook group set up for Bobby which had 39 people. 

All of them grieving and posting condolences – all with different accounts.

If Bobby didn’t exist were all of these people being scammed too? Why would anyone try to deceive that many people? 

But then, I caught myself. I was being naive… naive to the complexity of the deception. 

What if all of those people were fake too?

Chris Hand: It’s quite feasible that a single person built this narrative… in the same way that we look at, you know, legitimate fiction. People build wonderful, interweaved… you know, wonderful universes. 

My name is Dr Chris Hand. I’m a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow. 

I mean when I first came across this case it was like an epic, it was something like War and Peace with this massive cast of characters in. What was compelling to me was how an individual would be able to build this world by drawing on reality. And I think these cases are so compelling because they often just pull in enough from what’s happening in the real world and real people to, again, just give it that flavour of authenticity.

Alexi Mostrous, narrating: Over the next five episodes I’m going to tell you the whole story. What I think is likely to be the most sophisticated catfishing scam ever perpetrated.  

But the story isn’t finished. Even today Kirat has no idea why this happened to her – and so I’m going to try and get her answers. 

I’m going to hunt for the person who did this to her, and finally ask them the questions Kirat has been haunted by. 

I don’t yet know where this will all end up. But it matters: there might be other victims.

Next time on Sweet Bobby: the deception becomes more elaborate, and more sinister. 

And I try to find out more about Bobby himself. What’s real and what is fake? Was he just an innocent player in all this?

Oh, and one more thing.

Alexi Mostrous on the phone: Hi, so you spoke to Bobby? 

Bobby’s alive. 

Sweet Bobby was written and reported by me, Alexi Mostrous, produced by Gary Marshall, with additional reporting and production by Claudia Williams. Sound design is by Karla Patella. The executive producer is Basia Cummings. 

Next in this file

Episode 2: Witness protection

Episode 2: Witness protection

Bobby finds his way back into Kirat’s life, and their relationship grows closer – with devastating consequences. Meanwhile, Alexi investigates the sophistication of the catfishing scam

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