The irony is that Kirat Assi used to feel safe falling asleep to the sound of her lover’s breathing.
For three-and-a-half years, they would end every day like this; their lives synchronised in the most intimate way.
Yes, it was unfortunate that she could not physically be in the arms of Bobby, the man she planned to spend her life with, but long-distance relationships are a modern reality, and couples overcome myriad hurdles to make them work.
Kirat and Bobby did so with a set of Skype headphones each, her in London; him in New York.
‘I went through two or three sets,’ she admits. Some nights there was a sexual element to their intimacy.
Sometimes it was more chaste. They would chat. Play (online) Scrabble.
Over time, she read him an entire Harry Potter book. Afterwards, they would snuggle down for the night and drift off to sleep, apart but together.
Hopelessly romantic? Well, no. It’s the part of their ‘relationship’ — yes, we need the inverted commas — that now causes Kirat, 42, the most distress.
Not because Bobby’s insistence that they be joined like this nightly became controlling, which it did (to the point where Kirat actually contemplated suicide).
But because the Bobby she thought was in love with her did not exist.
This is a romance that never was. In 2018, Kirat discovered that she had been the victim of a decade-long ‘catfishing’ deception that was so shocking she collapsed when she found out the truth.
Catfishing is the phenomenon of luring someone into a relationship by creating a fictional online persona.
Kirat, a former radio presenter and events organiser (sensible and media-savvy, she thought; certainly not gullible), got well and truly lured.
In 2018, Kirat Assi (pictured), 42, discovered that she had been the victim of a decade-long ‘catfishing’ deception that was so shocking she collapsed when she found out the truth
There was added agony, too. For the person who created the alternative horror world into which Kirat, unwittingly, stepped, was not only a woman — with a high-flying career, incidentally — but also a distant cousin and someone who had become a friend.
‘She only confessed when the police got involved,’ Kirat says. ‘She came to my house. She stood there and said: “It was all me.”
‘I didn’t know what she meant, at first. She said she was Bobby. I still didn’t get it.’
Gradually, as the terrible truth dawned, Kirat asked: ‘So who have I been sleeping with on the phone for these past three-and-a- half years?’ She said ‘me’.
‘I collapsed. I was physically sick. She never said why. She just said “I was in a dark place” and “I’ve ruined my own life, too”.’
Some of the story you are about to read is extraordinary to the point of being unbelievable.
I thought so, too, before I meet Kirat, knowing only the bare bones of what happened. How can a seemingly intelligent woman think she is in a relationship (an intimate one, too) with a man who does not exist?
The story is — there is no other way to put this — quite nuts. It contains (spoiler alert) people dying and mysteriously coming back to life, for starters.
After speaking to a sometimes tearful Kirat for several hours, however, and having spent much longer wading through the documents she produces (one runs to 145 pages), it becomes clear that something truly terrifying has happened to her.
The fact that there is a paper trail (or, more accurately, an online footprint) of the thousands of messages, conversations and emails she had with ‘Bobby’ and his friends is important, too.
Kirat’s full story will be told in an astonishing series of podcasts produced by Tortoise Media, a reputable news website founded by a former editor of The Times.
Investigators there worked, over months, not only with Kirat but with witnesses, legal experts and other victims in this fascinating saga (including the real-life Bobby).
They believe it is the longest-running and most complex case of catfishing to have come to light.
The deception involved creating not just one person, but an entire community.
Kirat, who lives in West London, has since discovered 50 members of the supporting ‘cast’ — members of Bobby’s family, and online friends — were fabricated, too.
Kirat names the woman behind this epic deception as Simran Bhogal, a relative some 13 years her junior, who, at the start, Kirat knew only vaguely from family functions.
They had more contact, however, when a work project took Kirat to Simran’s school, where she was head girl and a straight A* student.
Kirat took the younger girl under her wing, giving Simran her mobile number. In time, she became a confidante, which makes this betrayal all the more devastating. ‘She has taken ten years of my life from me, years I will not get back,’ says Kirat.
‘In that time I could have met someone real, had a baby. I lost my friends, my job, my savings.
‘I opened up to him — her! — telling him things about my hopes, dreams, my childhood, that I’d never tell anyone. I feel violated.’
The story really begins in September 2009 when Kirat, a prominent member of London’s Sikh community, was working as an arts and events assistant for Hounslow Community Services as well as presenting a show on Radio Desi, a station for the Punjabi community.
She was in a relationship at the time and ‘certainly not looking for love’.
But, out of the blue, she received a Facebook message seemingly from Simran’s ex-boyfriend, JJ, asking for guidance.
They had split up and he wanted her advice on getting her back. Kirat didn’t know JJ personally, but obviously she knew of him, and she could see from his online profile that they had mutual friends (she’d never accept a friend request from a complete stranger, she says), so she accepted.
She found ‘JJ’ endearing, and over the next five months they communicated. Then she received the shocking news, from Simran, that JJ had died suddenly in Kenya.
Simran passed on the email address of JJ’s brother, Bobby, so that Kirat could send him her condolences. So far, so plausible.
Kirat names the woman behind this epic deception as Simran Bhogal (pictured far right), a relative some 13 years her junior, who, at the start, Kirat knew only vaguely from family functions
But what Kirat didn’t know was that while JJ and Bobby existed in real life, the versions of them with whom she communicated were a works of fiction.
In the case of the latter, the real Bobby’s photos and some biographical details had been used to help create the deception.
In November 2010, Kirat had her first Facebook encounter with (fake) Bobby.
They discovered they shared the same birthday and he told her he was married, with a child on the way.
There was nothing flirtatious or ‘deep’ about their contact, but a very loose friendship had begun. (Fake) Bobby was a cardiologist. His Facebook page had pictures of him in hospital scrubs, so no alarm bells rang.
Over the coming months they got to know each other, online, sharing details about their respective relationships, including the collapse of Bobby’s marriage.
‘We weren’t close, but I saw him as a friend, a little brother,’ she says.
There was an incident in a Brighton nightclub in 2011 when, quite by chance, Kirat actually met the real Bobby.
The whole deception could have been discovered before any damage was done, but it was not to be.
‘It was a hen night, and I was not expecting him to be there, but I recognised him from his Facebook picture,’ she says.
‘I went up and introduced myself. He seemed really vague. I thought he might have had a few drinks. The music was quite loud . . . maybe he couldn’t really hear me. It was weird.’
Obviously now Kirat wishes she had pressed the matter, demanded to know why Bobby was acting so coolly, when he had been warm and chatty during their online conversations.
Back they went to a remote friendship, she thought. Off and on they continued to message each other, with (fake) Bobby updating her when he moved to Australia and remarried.
In November 2013, she was at work when she received a Facebook message saying Bobby had been shot and was in a coma, suffering memory loss. And then in January 2014, she learned that he had died.
‘I was invited to join a Facebook group of his friends. There were 39 people in it. I have since learned that none of them was real.’
It gets more and more bizarre. From here, events unfold over four years, spanning continents, and sound like a particularly implausible film plot.
The first twist? Bobby (the fake one) came back to life. Kirat received an email out of the blue informing her that he was not only alive but in a witness protection programme.
‘Ridiculous,’ she acknowledges. ‘But at every step, these mad happenings were being backed up by other people.’
She still would not have said she was close to Bobby, but reports reached her that he was drinking heavily, his second marriage was in trouble and he was suicidal.
In 2015, he would apparently suffer a brain tumour, followed by a stroke.
In the middle of all this, another cousin (also part of this fabricated cast) asked Kirat to speak directly to Bobby on the phone.
She became — and again, she says it seemed perfectly sane because this madness was being corroborated — a confidante, muse, almost a remote nurse. Little be little, she was being reeled in.
‘Bobby’ declared his love for her some weeks before they actually ‘got together’. This happened on Valentine’s Day 2015.
‘I was not expecting him to live. His consultant [yes there were also constant messages from his fake medical team, which Kirat accepted at face value] did not expect him to live beyond July.’
Her feelings about this ‘dying man’ were confused. ‘I am not a mushy sort of person. When he said ‘I love you’, I didn’t know what to make of it, but I did love him . . . as a friend, then.
‘I also thought ‘Where’s the harm?’ It’s not as if I was ever going to be in a physical relationship with this person. But he kept putting the idea in my head. And everyone else kept saying: ‘Oh, he’s so in love with you’.’
Flowers arrived at her house — from fake Bobby. ‘It was a case of ‘he may have had a stroke, but even so, he has been thinking of me’. He bought me a pendant and earrings. I’d never had that much attention shown to me.’
Kirat feels like a fool now, but insists: ‘I am not a stupid person.’
As she documents this insanity, you get sucked in. I start to forget myself that the Bobby we are discussing is not real. Because the emotional connection was real.
Their relationship turned sexual. She will not share the details, but points out that she never sent him pictures of herself naked.
It seems that the fake Bobby instigated the acts, and Kirat confesses she felt ‘intimidated’ by his greater sexual experience. She finds this part repellent, now.
Much of their relationship in the early days was via online messaging forums, but they did also talk in person. How? Surely, if Bobby was actually her cousin Simran, she would have been able to tell she was talking to a woman?
‘No, because he’d lost his voice after his stroke. He was having speech therapy. At one point someone else was with me and heard his voice and laughed at how squeaky it was. Then his consultant got in touch to say Bobby was hurt. I ended up apologising.’
There are thousands of text messages, recorded calls and emails which document all these exchanges. It seems creepy now.
During 2014 and 2015, Kirat and (fake) Bobby built a life together. ‘Bobby’ said he did not know if he could have children, but he encouraged her to take folic acid, in preparation. Cruel.
‘Simran knew how much I wanted children. She took details she knew from my life and used them.’
Fast forward to 2017, and there had been more soap opera-level lurches. ‘Bobby’ was becoming controlling. He had forced Kirat to pay for a private mammogram at a London hospital, when she complained of chest pains, then flew into a rage when she told him the consultant had been male.
She was working in events management by now, but had been signed off her job sick, with stress. She eventually lost her job. ‘I tried to find another one, but Bobby did not want me to work.’
Kirat was desperate to meet Bobby in person, but every time an arrangement was made, something would happen.
Once he said he’d had a heart attack while on the phone to her.
Things started derailing quickly, but when Kirat pressed him too hard on anything, he would threaten to commit suicide.
Those around him — including the (fake) consultant who was treating him, who contacted Kirat, too — would tell her she was vital to his recovery.
Then she found a photo online of him (not looking remotely hospital-bound) with another woman. This was a picture of the real Bobby, who — all the while — had been living in blissful ignorance of the sinister exploitation of his identity.
Had the deception been blown open? No. Fake Bobby confessed to an affair (another ruse, but a successful diversion) and Kirat was left so devastated that she was in no state to question this. She even contemplated suicide.
‘I used to go for drives. Driving calms you down, takes your hands off the phone,’ she says.
‘I stopped on a bridge over a motorway and got out of the car just stood looking down, thinking: ‘What if I fell right now?’ ‘
By 2018, Bobby was seemingly well enough to come to London from his home in New York.
They agreed to meet, but he kept stalling. Then he told her he was staying at a hotel in London and she turned up to find that he wasn’t there.
The final unravelling came because, in desperation, Kirat had consulted a private investigator.
She doesn’t seem to know what she was investigating (it certainly wasn’t ‘Does Bobby exist?’), but she acquired an address for him, in Brighton, and, one Saturday in June of that year, simply drove there.
‘It was the first thing that I hadn’t told Simran about,’ she says. Of course, she was now back in the real world. The address she had was for the real Bobby. Showdown time.
When Bobby — the real one, completely clueless about the whole crazy thing — came out of the front door, looking at her as if she was a stranger, she was stunned.
‘I said ‘Hi, it’s me’ and he looked at me, confused. He said: ‘I don’t know who you are.’ At one point I mentioned his brother, and he said: ‘Oh, you must have me confused with my brother.’ I kept saying: ‘No, no.’
‘I showed him pictures on my phone. The confusion continued, because of course the pictures Kirat had were of the real Bobby, appropriated by Simran to create his fake online profile.
Then a woman appeared. His supposedly ex-wife, with his son. ‘I was dumbstruck. Obviously this was evidence that he had been unfaithful again. I’d caught him red-handed.’
By now things were getting hysterical. The real Bobby (who genuinely had no idea what Kirat was talking about) was threatening to call the police.
Her mind was a blur. Was Bobby under duress?
Was his former wife involved? Kirat called her trusted cousin and kept her on the line, so she could hear the entire conversation.
At one point she let Simran speak to the real Bobby, the man she had been impersonating for so long.
‘She told me to just go home, but I was reeling. I remember just dropping the phone and going and sitting on a nearby grass verge,’ Kirat says.
Suddenly, she was aware that she had been the victim of a huge deception. But by whom? And for what reason?
Back home, still her ever-faithful cousin Simran was there, holding her hand. ‘We went for a drive. I asked her to drive because I wasn’t in a fit state,’ Kirat says.
‘I was concerned for her, saying that she had been duped as well — everyone had.’
On the Monday after Kirat’s traumatic trip to Brighton, Simran said she would come and work at home with her.
Kirat saw her cousin sitting outside in the car, with her brother, ‘having an argument’.
Then they came in and Simran said she had something to tell her. ‘She said: ‘It was all me.’ Those haunting words.’
Kirat can barely tell this story, so upset is she even now.
‘I’m having a meltdown just thinking about it. I didn’t know what she meant. Then I didn’t believe her. I fell back.
‘I remember knowing my friend [a real-life friend] was across the road and I was screaming for her: ‘Come now. I need you now!’ Then she was holding me, and I was sick.
‘Simran just shrugged. She said: ‘I was in a dark place. I’ve ruined my life, too.’ But she never said sorry. I remember telling her: ‘You could have stopped this at any time. Ten years! You could have stopped it — you sicko!’ Then I passed out.’
It must have been a very distraught Kirat who went to the police in London, and she was devastated at what happened next.
‘The officer behind the desk took aside the relative who had gone with me and said: ‘Are you sure she’s OK in the head?’ I had a meltdown. They didn’t see me as the victim.
‘At first they said the victim was the person who had been impersonated. A lot of this has been about me going ‘Help me!’
Legally, this is tricky. Kirat was clearly a victim, but of what crime, if any?
It does not seem to have been a ruse designed with the intention of extorting money (although Kirat claims to have lost ‘hundreds of thousands of pounds’, mostly from lost earnings).
Legal experts involved with the Tortoise investigation believe that existing laws covering ‘coercive and controlling’ relationships should be adequate to bring a prosecution (even though the coercive control was being exerted by a person who wasn’t real).
But while Brighton police did investigate Kirat’s initial complaint, the case was later transferred to her home borough of Hounslow.
The authorities there decided to take no further action, and Simran has never been interviewed.
Last year, Kirat brought a civil action against Simran, who still lives with her parents and works in financial services.
It was settled out of court. Some of the details are not public, but we can report that the settlement included an ‘apology letter’ from Simran.
In a statement issued via her lawyers, she said: ‘This matter concerns a family dispute over events that began more than a decade ago, when I was a schoolgirl.
‘I no longer have any of the communications between myself and Ms Assi, and have not had any contact with her for a number of years.’
Kirat has much to lose by speaking out. There are members of her wider family who think the matter should just be ‘swept under the carpet’, but she argues that the authorities need to take catfishing more seriously and hopes that by talking about her experience, she will raise awareness of the dangers.
One leading barrister, Dr Charlotte Proudman, cites Kirat’s story as evidence that catfishing should be a standalone crime.
As Kirat says: ‘If this has happened to me, on this scale, it can happen to anyone. No one is taking it seriously, which is wrong.
‘We live our lives online now — banking, shopping . . . everything — and we have to be safe. I was not safe. This is dangerous.’
Kirat’s lawyer Yair Cohen, who specialises in social media and the internet, says she has been ‘let down by the criminal justice system, which for some time now, has been too ill-equipped and too poorly trained to handle extreme cases of anti-social behaviour crimes that are occurring online’.
He says the Goverment needs to ‘start developing a modern, up-to-date online policing strategy that will finally reflect the needs of online abuse victims.’
Tortoise Media’s six-part podcast, Sweet Bobby, is available on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Spotify.