Trail of tears as conman weaves a web of deceit

Stephen Dodd says women, a bishop and a policeman have all been duped by Tom the ConHE IS short, fat, middle-aged and balding. He lies, cheats and

Stephen Dodd says women, a bishop and a policeman have all been duped by Tom the Con

HE IS short, fat, middle-aged and balding. He lies, cheats and steals. He has no home, no car and no job. Yet for almost two decades Tom McLaughlin has lived the carefree life of a roaming Romeo.

His conquests form an impressive tally, though his methods are rarely less than criminal. Once, staying in Dingle, he fabricated a life story to persuade a local matchmaker to fix him up with a string of women, then employed a taxi driver to ferry them in from the train station. In the north, he dated two women at the same time, stealing cheques from one girl to finance outings with her rival.

One rueful dupe explained how she met Tom for lunch several times, only to end up losing £11,500 to him. Later, she discovered another local girl had lost £9,000.

«He’d seemed extremely gentlemanly,» she admitted.

Last week, Tom McLaughlin’s uncanny fortune was pushed to the limit. A chance call to RTE’s Liveline show prompted scores of stories from heartbroken women and defrauded men, left sad and stranded along Tom’s trail of tears.

Tales of his swindles were legion. Even a bishop admitted he had been conned by McLaughlin, and one woman explained how Tom rented out his neighbour’s house during their holiday and then complained the tank had run out of heating oil.

«Tom,» declared Liveline host Joe Duffy, «we’ll get you by tomorrow.»

That was Monday. By the closing credits of Friday’s Liveline, however, Tom was still on the lam, despite the efforts of a pack of disgruntled victims and the concentrated attention of several garda districts.

«Five or six gardai raided my house last night looking for him,» reported 18-year-old Eunan of Co Wexford, whose mother is the latest reported sap for Tom’s unfathomable charms.

«My mother just can’t come to terms with the fact that he’s a fraud,» Eunan said. «She wants to believe this is lies. She’s been on local radio saying it’s nonsense.»

Eunan’s mum is hardly alone in her willingness to fall under the spell of a man who even managed to trick the Jehovah’s Witnesses into cleaning his home. As the week progressed, a long career of confidence tricks some breathtaking in their audacity and others downright nasty wound up providing an extraordinary history lesson on national radio.

Tom, or so the stories suggest, is a former prison guard who ended up on the other side of the law. A succession of frauds took him on the run from the police and he has served several spells behind bars. Yet despite the occasional hiccup, his swindling has extended across 18 years and as many counties.

A Kerry matchmaker revealed how he vetted Tom with a questionnaire and introduced him to a wealthy woman, who fell in love with the conman.

«He said that in two lifetimes he couldn’t spend the money he had,» the matchmaker said.

After three weeks, Tom ran off with another woman, telling his heartbroken girlfriend it was really his nurse, driving him to a surgeon’s appointment at a hospital.

On another occasion he tricked a Co Meath girl into joining him for a fortnight’s cruise on the Shannon. She also fell in love with Tom and ended up paying for the trip.

In nearby Navan, Tom fooled the owner of a country house into thinking he might buy the property. He used the introduction as a means to borrow the man’s four-wheel-drive Jeep. He never brought it back.

His modus operandi, revealed through victims’ calls to Liveline, emerges as a set of repeated motifs. He boasts of an American connection; a job in San Diego; a Boston childhood. He targets young widows in their forties and attempts to get them to fall in love with him. Often he succeeds.

His patter follows set themes. He is a doctor, he says, or else a wealthy player in the construction business. Often he is building a bypass, and sometimes he drops the name of a fictitious construction group.

Tom spins webs of deceit. He plays on victims’ sympathies by telling them of his own «tragedies». Usually there is a wife who has died, of cancer or in a car crash. Sometimes it is a girlfriend who is dead. Once he even told a victim he had a brother who was killed in Vietnam.

Although Tom strikes with indiscriminate ease, it is most often women who fall for his sob stories. His gift of the gab appears to overcome a substantial inventory of physical shortcomings.

«He’s fat, not too tall, no chin, a big nose,» recalled one former neighbour who witnessed Tom’s dark side. «I don’t know how he got the women, I really don’t.»

The neighbour gave the lie to the notion that Tom was, at heart, a lovable rogue. He taunted her for years, she said, banging on the walls of the adjoining house. Once he posed as a doctor and tricked his way into examining a stranger’s sick child. He suggested there was nothing wrong and advised giving Calpol.

On other occasions, it was claimed, he deliberately tipped a child from a bicycle, and arranged for wet cement to be poured into a near neighbour’s garden.

TOM dubbed Tom the Con by one brief acquaintance made his most famous strike 10 years ago, when he was hitch-hiking in Naas and was picked up by Bishop Fiachra ÓCeallaigh, the auxiliary Bishop of Dublin. Tom’s chat began, and soon he was telling the bishop about his broken marriage, and how he had lost his driving licence.

Two to three years later Tom began to ring the bishop regularly, looking for money.

«Quite often he’d be on the verge of a breakdown,» Bishop ÓCeallaigh recalls. The bishop’s story briefly threw confusion into the search for McLaughlin when he spoke on Liveline of a second incident, before realising he had suffered the unusual bad luck to be targeted by two con artists.

A man calling himself Paul Kelly had visited 11 Franciscan priories, most recently earlier this month, claiming to be the bishop’s nephew and looking for handouts.

The second conman also tricked Head to Toe presenter Barbara MacMahon out of £100 by pretending to be a visitor who had been robbed. Kelly rang her and said he was Riverdance impresario Bill Whelan. Could Barbara help out a stricken traveller?

«He’s my hero,» Barbara admitted. «He gave me an Oscar-winning performance.»

It is Tom McLaughlin, however, who has earned the title of Liveline’s Most Wanted. Photographs have been circulated and a warrant is now out for the con artist’s arrest.

If Joe Duffy’s early confidence has not been rewarded yet, Tom the Con’s continued liberty has at least provided a large stock of detailed descriptions for police to act on.

One tailor even provided his vital statistics after being ripped off for hundreds of pounds’ worth of clothes.

The message is clear. Tom may be in your neighbourhood, in your pub, even in the guest room of your house. He may also, of course, have fled the country. Perhaps he has returned to Scotland, where he once rooked a guesthouse owner and stole his car to use on a crime spree back home in Ireland.

The car’s disgruntled owner has good cause to watch out for the return of Tom the Con. He is an Isle of Arran police constable.

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