Most people don’t run a background check when they first meet a friend and I’d been close to him for a while. I thought I knew him. When I discovered that his professional job was defrauding people out of money on an international scale, it was unfathomable to me.
In fashion, nothing is cheap – campaigns, photoshoots and the whole production is very expensive, it can take hundreds of thousands of pounds to get a collection off the ground. I had paid my friend several thousand pounds to organise some original music for the campaign video. When we decided not to record a new track I asked him to send the money back. It was taking him months, so finally I called the music company, but they didn’t have a record of it.
That’s how I started to discover something was amiss. Eventually, I called the police who were already looking into him. I sent them all the relevant information I had about him and my business. They called me a few days later to tell me he’d been arrested, they’d taken files from his house, he’d confessed and they were charging him with six counts of fraud involving myself and others. They said I might have to go to court in October, but if he pleaded guilty, that would be it.
When three police officers came knocking on my Tower Bridge apartment door on a November evening in 2016, I thought they were coming to help me. I couldn’t believe it when they put me under arrest on suspicion of fraud. This was a far cry from my initial experience as an American living in London. The previous four years had been the greatest adventure of my life.
I was a London Fashion Week womenswear designer with my brand Sophia Beckford, at the time. Things were going well. My work was featured in top fashion magazines, like Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar – it was everything I’d dreamed of and worked for. In my personal life, though, things weren’t so great. At the beginning of 2016, I went through a breakup with my boyfriend who had been my support system away from home and I’d recently had a miscarriage.
It was then that a close friend of mine stepped in, lifted me up and helped with my business. But within months, I found out that he was scamming me, defrauding me and using my name to create fake documents to try and open bank accounts. He’d been defrauding some other acquaintances as well, masquerading as an American music producer. He wrote fake emails pretending to be different people. It was an extremely elaborate, well thought-out scheme.
I was told I could carry on with my business as normal. It wasn’t until after the London Fashion Week catwalk show in September 2016 that I started getting calls from investors saying they were waiting on money to come back in from some orders. I just thought it was a delay with the retailers. Then I started getting calls and threats of extortion, so I went to the police. I showed them the emails but because no-one had threatened my life, they couldn’t do anything. The calls turned out to be from investors that my friend had been dealing with.
In November 2016, the police showed up at my flat. They had no warrant but came in and bagged up my laptop, files and personal items and told me I was under arrest for suspicion of fraud. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t touch my phone and was told I’d be able to make phone calls at the station.
They put me in a cell and prevented me from calling my lawyer or mother until the middle of the night. I left a message with my immigration lawyer and asked if his firm could help. I found out later that he’d tried calling back repeatedly, but the police wouldn’t put him through.
I was expected to get my breakfast and sit across the table from some of the most notorious killers in the UK. I’d recently seen someone on TV who’d tried to barbecue her nanny. All of a sudden, she was my neighbour.
I was taken to see the judge a couple of days later, with my imigration lawyer present. The first thing the police said was: “She’s African-American, she’s dangerous, she’s violent and she has previous convictions in the US involving violence.” I don’t have any convictions and I’m not violent. I’d been arrested years before after an altercation with a family member who’d previously attacked me, but I’d been released without charges. To say I’d been convicted was a lie. They asked the judge to remand me in prison, despite them having my passport so I couldn’t go anywhere.
What’s frustrating about the British justice system is that you don’t sit with your lawyer. In the states you sit next to them so you can let them know when something is wrong. In the UK, they keep you separate. I couldn’t say anything unless I stood up and waved my arms. My voice was silenced. All I was able to contribute to the conversation was “not guilty”.
When the judge agreed that I should be held in prison until the evidence was brought against me, I wanted to die right there. I really didn’t think I’d last a week. When my lawyer explained that I was going to be put in a maximum security prison, I couldn’t believe it. They’d arrested me on suspicion of fraud and I was being sent to a maximum security prison? In the US prisons are broken up. Martha Stewart who was convicted for lying about a stock trade wasn’t in prison with serial killers. In the UK, everyone’s mixed up and free to roam. There’s no segregation between the really dangerous criminals and everyone else.
The first morning in prison, I was expected to get my breakfast and sit across the table from some of the most notorious killers in the UK. I’d recently seen someone on TV who’d tried to barbecue her nanny. All of a sudden, she was my neighbour. What’s really scary is when someone has a life sentence, they have nothing to lose. It put me at absolute risk, plus I was bullied for the entire time I was there.
I was hated by a lot of the prisoners. Jo Dennehy the serial killer who butchered strangers in the street was there – she’s scary and she despised me. The prisoners would say, “this girl thinks she’s better than us” because I wasn’t building friendships. I didn’t think I was better than them, I just didn’t know how to build a friendship with someone who’d burned down an old people’s home.
There were administrative problems as well. When I was taken to prison, they registered me on the system as British instead of American. It meant I was passed over for foreign national support at the beginning because my embassy and my country didn’t know I was there. I didn’t get foreign national phone credits – I had to fight to get that. And I had to fight to get foreign national envelopes so I could write to my family. When they rectified the mistake they only changed it on half of the system. Months later, I was still having to argue that I was American.
As things continued the prison started to cancel my visits. My lawyer would contact my case worker and tell me he’d waited for me all afternoon. No-one ever told me he was there. The letters I sent to my embassy kept disappearing, too. When my lawyer checked to see if they’d received them, they wrote to me and said they’d only received two of my dozens of letters. I find it hard to believe all of these things were an oversight.
I was supposed to be released in December – a month and a half after I’d first been taken there. The release order came and I was taken to reception at 6:30am to exit, but they told me there was a problem with the paperwork and I’d have to wait there. It wasn’t until the evening they admitted they weren’t able to get an answer and the court had closed, so I’d have to go back to my cell and return in the morning. They did that to me for four days consecutively. In the end, they couldn’t organise the paperwork so I was told I’d be taken to court to be released there in January instead. When you have a release order, you’re supposed to be released immediately. They’re not supposed to keep you there.
Three times I was supposed to go to the court. They would wake me up in the morning, take me to reception, tell me my name wasn’t on the list and take me back to the cell. My lawyer would call my case worker and ask “why didn’t she show?” They wouldn’t put me on the van to go to the court to be released. In the end I told my lawyer, “you’re going to have to get this done without me, I’m not sure I’ll ever make it there.”
When you make a complaint to the IPCC, they ask the police department that you’re making the complaint against to investigate. The police department was never going to admit their officers were wrong.
When I finally got to the court in February, I argued that the police had committed perjury by telling the court I had a criminal conviction and that I shouldn’t have been jailed to begin with. They argued back that I was a flight risk because when they went to my flat, they found suitcases with clothes in. Yes, there were suitcases with clothes – they were the collection from my catwalk show – every garment matched and had the same print. I didn’t get the opportunity to tell the judge this however, as I was back in the glass box away from my lawyer, so they put me back in jail again until my trial.
I was devastated. I asked the police to look into my former friend and find which prison he was in because it related to my case. They didn’t answer. I started to file formal complaints to the IPCC Independent Police Complaints Commission. I told them the police didn’t have a warrant and committed perjury to have me jailed on made up convictions. I started to fight. I was dealing with some discrimination with officers in the prison. One of them refused to give me my dinner with no explanation. One officer tried to push me into a closet and kiss me. I couldn’t trust the prison to let me speak to my lawyer. I couldn’t trust the prison to let me speak to my government. I couldn’t trust the prison to honour a release order and let me out. I couldn’t trust the prison to deliver me to court. And, I couldn’t trust the officers with my safety. I was alone.
There were days where I wanted to kill myself. I thought when I made the complaint against the police to the IPCC that they would do something. But that wasn’t the case. When you make a complaint to the IPCC, they ask the police department that you’re making the complaint against to investigate. The police department was never going to admit their officers were wrong. I realised I’d complained to the people who had put me there in the first place and I’d tipped them off that I was raising a grievance.
When I was called for a trial in September 2017, it was sprung on me. The prosecution refused to disclose their case against me to my legal team. They were going to try to put me on the stand without disclosing anything. I wrote a letter to the judge and told him if he put me on trial, I wouldn’t be there. I wouldn’t participate in something so entirely stacked against me. When the judge read my letter he ordered the prosecution to disclose the information to my defence team. But he’d only given them a few hours. That’s not enough time to look through everything and prepare a defence. Eventually the trial was delayed by a couple of days but I had hardly any time with my barrister. I saw most of the files for the first time as I was in the box at the trial.
No-one in the jury worked in my industry. Once, the prosecution told the jury, “she spent £18,000 on clothes”. Really, I’d paid a manufacturer in Italy to make my collection. I did manage to secure an Agreed Facts document.
The Agreed Facts stated that I was a victim of fraud by my former friend, that he admitted to defrauding me and that he was charged and confessed to six counts of fraud. This was disclosed to everyone in the court. Also, in that Agreed Facts document, the police finally admitted that they didn’t know where my former friend was. They’d let him out on bail and he’d absconded.
The judge told me that even though they didn’t have any evidence that I’d committed the fraud, that I was ‘smart’ and it wouldn’t surprise him if I could convince someone else to do it for me because I was well-travelled and educated. Before, I was the black person who was violent and dangerous with criminal convictions. Then, because I’m smart and educated, they said it meant I used my education to convince others to defraud lenders out of £300,000.
There was no way I could win. The judge told me he would have sentenced me to seven years in prison but because I had no family in the UK, he’d reduce my sentence to five and a half years. There was a white woman in my prison who’d been sentenced to less than that (five years) after being convicted of £1 million of fraud. It was pure racial bias.
Injustice is rife in Britain, people just don’t want to hear it. In America we have problems, but we don’t act like they don’t exist. I was originally jailed because I was “black and dangerous” and I was convicted because I was “crafty.” During my arrest and trial, all the officers, prosecutors, investigators and judges were white. The UK is heavily racist and classist, the fact that everyone pretends that it’s not is what’s scary.
There’s nothing in place to help you when you want to raise a flag. My complaints went straight to the people who put me there. I had tried to do everything through the proper channels in the UK and no-one cared. The system completely failed me. I was shouting for help and no-one was listening.
My release in November 2018 is a bit of a mystery. My mom had been working with various people in congress and the US government. In the UK I was told that if I agreed to sign the paper to be deported, I could leave. At the same time, I was getting letters from the court about my next court date. And when my plane ticket came, I was still getting letters from the court. At the airport everything was accepted. I signed the paper and was given the option to fly anywhere in the US. Until the plane took off I was terrified they were going to run on and take me off.
At every turn of this experience I thought, This cannot be possible. The craziest thing is that I called the police first, not just once, but many times, before they ever came knocking on my door. I had my money, I had my passport, I had my clothes. I could have left the UK.
On her release, Elle’s clothes and belongings were delivered to her destroyed by her landlord
What was also hard was I worked my whole life to build what I built in the UK and I lost everything. When the police led me out of my flat, that was the last time I ever saw it. They repossessed my car without my permission or a warrant and left the flat to my landlords who went in and took whatever they wanted. All my personal possessions, everything from my life and gifts from my family, were taken or destroyed.
One of the things I was most looking forward to when I was released was getting dressed and feeling like myself again. But, the clothes from my landlord were delivered burnt, and rotten. One bag of jackets and a few books survived. That was it.
For anyone struggling with injustice, or struggling to be heard, I just hope you don’t give up too soon, because in my case I came out the other side stronger. I’m finding happiness now, I started to design again Elle showcased the newest collection for her line, Elle B Zhou, via digital catwalk in May, I’ve rebuilt despite everything and I have a future. But I’ve no doubt there are many black women caught up in a biased UK judicial system who are not so lucky.