Paradise Lost

For Annie Predun it was a whirlwind romance. Her new man was warm, funny and made her feel as if she was the only woman in the world. For Sean Whelan she was — until he got $100,000. Michael Clifford unravels the background to the story

ANNIE PREDUN was nervous as she waited for her perfect Irishman. He was flying in on Virgin Atlantic, for the first face-to-face meeting in a relationship that had sparked on Match.com, an internet dating site. He was based in Dublin, she in Orlando, Florida. And on the day in question, June 19, 2007, she was going to meet the man whose charm had radiated from her laptop.

Sean Whelan’s plane landed at Orlando International airport that afternoon, and he turned out to be all she had expected and more. He had introduced himself on the site as a 53-year-old management consultant, separated with three grown-up children. That much was true. Annie, who had worked as a sales and marketing professional, had been divorced for six years at the time of the internet match-up. She had three sons, all in their 20s. She had moved down to Florida from her New York home months previously.

The airport meeting went well. In person, Whelan was warm, funny and made her feel as if she was the only woman in the world.

“I thought it was a whirlwind,” Annie Predun remembers. “The plan was that he would stay in a hotel in Cape Canaveral, where I was living. But we hit it off straight away. We started that afternoon with champagne, and he stayed at my condo.”

Talk of marriage

Within days, the word ‘marriage’ began to flit through their conversations.

Less than a week after meeting, the couple flew to New York to meet Annie’s brother, Kevin, a Franciscan priest. Annie’s mother was from Glenbeigh, in Co Kerry, but she had reservations about her own countrymen.

“We used to go to the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan every year when I was a child and everybody would be drunk,” Annie says. “My mother used to say that ‘I hope you meet a proper Irishman and not these drunks.’

“I told Sean about this and he said he wanted to meet my brother and show him that he was a proper Irishman.”

Sean insisted that he must ask for Annie’s hand in marriage in the old-fashioned way. Her parents were dead, so Sean would ask the priest for his blessing instead. The couple stayed overnight at the Franciscan priory in New Jersey.

By then, Sean Whelan had another plan laid out. They would divide their time between Dublin, New York and Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island where he had business interests. He also suggested that he rearrange Annie’s personal finances.

He told her to tally up the college loans she had taken out for her children, and her credit card debt. He would take care of the outstanding monies and he would also invest $100,000 (€69.984) of her money, by placing the cash in a Mauritius, bank, which offered a high interest rate to favoured customers. The money represented nearly all of Annie’s life savings.

For her investment, she would receive a $1,450 (€1,014) interest payment every month. It sounded like a sweet deal. On June 26, seven days after meeting Whelan, Annie Predun wired the money to Whelan’s account in AIB Portlaoise.

And so she embarked on her new life, with a new partner in whom she was investing not just her emotions, but her life savings. Whelan flew back to Dublin, leaving her with the impression that he also was making preparations for their lives together.

Over the following months, it began to slowly dawn on Annie Predun that Sean Whelan was not as he appeared. Her life, which she thought was lifting off into a new phase, quickly came crashing down to earth.

Not the first

Annie Predun was not the first to be drawn to Sean Whelan by his warm and charming exterior, only to find that a different person lurked beneath.

Twelve years previously he became the focus of an investigation in Canada Life over the mis-selling of alleged mortgage pension policies. He had been a tied agent to the company and sold policies to farmers along the border, which, he claimed, would entitle them to loans of between £30,000 and £500,000.

Canada Life didn’t deal in mortgages. The products he was selling didn’t exist. At least 30 clients were duped. Many of them took legal action against Canada Life, resulting in a pay-out totalling nearly €500,000.

Once Whelan’s activities came to public attention, Canada Life would claim that he wasn’t an employee, but merely an agent working outside the company. However, in 1994, the company’s in-house magazine had praised Whelan as an example of a top salesman who was “incredibly energetic”. Whelan was never prosecuted over the mis-selling of policies.

Billionaire Dermot Desmond had also been drawn to Whelan. One of his companies had forwarded £146,000 in credit to Whelan for a technology venture in the 1990s. When Whelan failed to cough up, Desmond went to court. Eventually, the billionaire sought a bankruptcy petition against Whelan, which was granted on 3 April 1995. The move was uncharacteristic of Desmond, but sources close to the case suggest that he had been mightily annoyed by how Whelan had conducted himself.

It wasn’t just women and businessmen who fell for the charm. The late Cardinal Cathal Daly had been moved to contact Whelan personally for introducing him to the concept of mobile phones. “I cannot thank you enough for your great kindness in coming personally to deliver the new car phone last week,” the then Archbishop wrote in a letter dated February 21, 1991.

“It is a marvellous piece of equipment and will be an invaluable tool in my work. I shall be ever grateful to you. All I can do in return is to offer a prayer for God’s blessing upon yourself and your whole enterprise.”

Bankrupted

That particular enterprise went belly up, but in November 1995, seven months after being bankrupted, he applied to be allowed to leave the jurisdiction as he was unemployed and had been offered a job by a communications company in Stoke-on-Trent. According to his bankruptcy file, he was granted permission.

It is unclear what Whelan worked at thereafter before he returned to Ireland. In an online business profile, he lists himself as having been the chief operating officer of a company based in the island of Mauritius, where he told Annie Predun he would invest her money.

He is also listed as having served as a managing director of a German-based company, and a stint as vice president of Avocent International, based in Shannon.

His next stop was Quinn Insurance, where he began working as a commercial claims manager, answering to Sean Quinn Jnr.

Despite his history in the insurance business he was back in the heart of it, although his employer had no knowledge of his previous activities.

Then, in mid 2007, he went looking for love on Match.com. Annie Predun was doing likewise. Their profiles met across cyberspace, and three weeks after the first contact, Whelan was on a plane to Orlando.

Traumas and tragedies

After the whirlwind courtship, Whelan left Annie, saying that he would return on July 6, a week later. Just before the appointed day, he wrote to her that tragedy had struck. A close relation had contracted terminal cancer, and he would have to remain in Ireland to support his family. It was the first of many alleged traumas and tragedies that prevented Whelan from returning to the US to the arms of the woman who was waiting for him.

He claimed a family death in late July. By August, his plans were back on track. He texted that he was flying over via Manchester. Then, a text message from Manchester Airport, on August 17 at 6.21pm:

“Blood pressure climbed very high. Flew back to Dublin. Admitted to hospital. Scan revealed blood clot near brain. Dr Sheehan will operate in the morning”

As with much else, it was a fiction. By September there was still no sign of Sean. Annie was worried. When October rolled around, she began to smell a rat. By then, Whelan had told her various things, including that he had been diagnosed with an aneurism.

Initially, the interest cheques were sent to her as he had promised. “Sean said he was sending them to help me look for a condo in New York for us,” Annie says. “He called it ‘project Annie’. Then they stopped coming.”

Annie began to wonder what was going on. There was no sign of Sean, and no sign of her investment. She contacted the bank manager of AIB in Portlaoise who could not help her on the basis of client confidentiality.

Her concern was expressed in e-mails she wrote to Whelan on October 27 and 29. (See panel)

By the time Christmas rolled around, she was despairing. Whelan said he would meet her in New York in January. On the day they were supposed to meet, he texted that one of his daughters was in an accident, and he had to return to Ireland.

“He was killing off his family members,” Annie says, referring to the stories he peddled which were patently untrue.

Later that year, Annie travelled to Ireland for a conference being given by Depak Chopra in Dublin.

“It was early on a Saturday morning,” she remembers. “I got talking to the taxi driver and told him about Sean. He asked me what Sean’s address was. I had an address in the K-club.

“The taxi driver took me to the exact address. The cabbie knocked on the door for me. Sean answered, he was looking groggy, as if he’d just got up. He stuck out his hand, ‘How you been,’ he asked me.” Annie says she made five different appointments to meet Whelan during her week-long stay in Dublin. He didn’t keep any of them.

In the end she sought recourse to the law and retained a Dublin based solicitor.

Meanwhile, Whelan’s business career was reaching new heights. In March 2009, he took up a position in the group of companies owned by businessman Jim Mansfield. The Mansfield group was based in the Citywest Hotel complex, where Annie had stayed on her visit the previous year.

Whelan was introduced to Mansfield’s business through the principal’s son, Jim Jnr. The Mansfields had no knowledge of Whelan’s past, or of his dealings with Annie Predun.

He was well liked by most who encountered him in Citywest. Employees spoken to in research for this article described him as, “smooth“, “plausible“, “likeable”.

“He’s somebody whom the staff at Citywest reacted well to.” Another opined: “When he’s talking to you it’s as if you’re the only person in the room”.

One employee who didn’t encounter the smooth side of Whelan was John Glynn, the then manager of Citywest.

In an affidavit filed in the High Court in January 2010 to prevent his dismissal from the group, Glynn alleged that Whelan had been constantly trying to undermine him.

Glynn alleged that Whelan had joined the group in what appeared to be a consultancy role, as a result of being a social acquaintance of Jim Mansfield Jnr. Within two months of joining, Whelan was describing himself as the CEO. Glynn had been on a salary of €250,000, which Whelan had arbitrarily cut by €100,000 in July 2009, only reinstating it following the intervention of Jim Mansfield. In October, the salary was cut again, when Mansfield was in hospital for a serious health complaint.

Glynn says that in December Whelan wrote him a letter complaining about a traffic management issue at Citywest. Glynn tore up the letter and walked into Whelan “in a moment of weakness” and handed him the remains. Whelan then dismissed him.

Mansfield Snr and Whelan both disputed Glynn’s contentions.

One of Whelan’s major projects at Citywest was a proposal for a language school which would involve housing 750 Saudi Arabian students in vacant accommodation on the complex. The plan was reported to have the backing, including major funding, of the Saudi government. However, concerns were also expressed that it would involve effective ghettoisation of the students in a programme that was designed to integrate them into the host country.

Events overtook the plans. Mounting debts began to weigh down the Mansfield Group. Then, in July, two days after revelations about Whelan’s past appeared in the Sunday Tribune, Bank of Scotland appointed a receiver to the group. Whelan’s ties with the group were quickly cut.

Death threats

Over the following months, he developed other problems. At one point, he booked himself into a psychiatric hospital. His car, an 08 registered Mercedes, was firebombed outside the apartment he was renting in the Citywest complex. Garda sources confirmed he had received death threats.

When contacted by this reporter about the incident at the time, Whelan said he was in hospital. He confirmed that his car had been damaged. “I don’t know who did it, I wish I did,” he said.

Fate has not been kind to Annie Predun since her first encounter with Whelan. Having handed over most of her life savings, she has found herself in dire straits. After initiating legal action in the High Court in October 2008, she had to endure more delaying tactics. Whelan admitted in affidavit that she had given him the money. He issued cheques to cover some of the debt, but the cheques weren’t honoured.

Finally, on October 13, 2009, nearly a year after she initiated her action, the Master of the High Court awarded her a judgment against Whelan for $100,000, plus 22 months interest of $1,350 per month, minus €27,799, which had been repaid.

Annie Predun has not seen any of the monies awarded.

The fact that Whelan had never discharged his bankruptcy at the time of the action was never revealed. In the highly unlikely event of Whelan coming into a large sum of money, it is unclear where she would stand in the queue.

The whole experience has had an extremely negative impact on her emotional health.

“I have no money left, I’ve been in financial hell over the last three years as a result of this man. I’m living with friends,” she said last week. “I had to leave (New York) because I couldn’t even pay the rent. I was using my savings to pay the credit card debt thinking money would be coming from Sean. But it never came.”

Embarrassed

She said she felt embarrassed and humiliated that she had believed Whelan and handed over her money.

However, she also emphasised that she still had feelings for the man who left her high and dry.

When contacted about Annie Predun, Whelan said he wouldn’t discuss it on the phone, although he had been happy on previous occasions to discuss his other activities.

He wanted to meet. An appointment at a city hotel was arranged for the following day and half an hour before the appointed time, he rang to cancel.

This followed a pattern he had used with Annie Predun. On previous occasions the information he gave about his activities failed to tally with the known facts.

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