There was something not quite right about the two men struggling out of Hereford bus station on a blustery day in November 2015. The dark-haired one was wearing what appeared to be military fatigues; his much older companion seemed confused and barely able to walk. A concerned passerby went to help. The younger man, who seemed to have an American or Canadian accent, explained that he had found the older man face down on a country road and was taking him to Hereford county hospital. She walked with them, doing her best to support the faltering older man, who could not move more than a couple of paces unaided. As the three of them approached the turning to the hospital, she flagged down an ambulance. The paramedics suspected dementia and assessed the older man in the rear cabin; he seemed to be smiling and crying at the same time. He had no ID and could only give his first name, Roger.

His companion, sitting opposite, told the crew the same story: he had found the man on the side of a road some distance from Credenhill, a village on the outskirts of Hereford. But he claimed he couldn’t share his own contact details because he had been working at the nearby SAS base, and soon vanished into the early evening gloom.

Little was as it seemed that Saturday. It was just the beginning of an extraordinary international mystery that for six months flummoxed the British authorities and generated headlines around the world. The truth only partially emerged earlier this year, when Simon Hayes, a 53-year-old personal trainer, was given a two-and-a-half-year sentence for his role in a plot to abandon Roger Curry, an autistic American man with dementia, far from his home in Whittier, California. Hayes had driven Roger to Hereford the day after he had arrived, with the rest of the Curry family, on a flight from the US. The 78-year-old had been stripped of anything that could identity him, and dressed in brand new British supermarket clothes.

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Yet Hayes’s motivations – and indeed much of the Curry family’s backstory – remain a mystery. The judge at his trial, Daniel Pearce-Higgins, struggled to find any precedents for the case. Sentencing at Worcester crown court in April this year, he remarked: “I cannot find any case remotely similar to the facts of this case, curiously because there appears to be no apparent benefit to the defendant.”

There is no evidence that money changed hands, or that Hayes benefited in any way. Why did he go to the lengths he did to help Roger’s son, Kevin Curry, dump his father more than 5,000 miles from his US home? Is he – as the court heard – a convincing liar who stage-managed the British end of a plot to get the NHS to look after an unwanted relative? Or is he – as the court also heard – a tragic figure who took refuge in a fantasy world to protect himself from a turbulent life punctuated by loss?

***

It’s July 2019 and Prisoner A1682EJ appears jittery as he is finally let into the cavernous visiting hall of HMP Oakwood in Staffordshire. Wearing a grey polo shirt and tracksuit bottoms, Simon Hayes shuffles one way, then the other. The G4S guards took no notice and for a few moments he waits awkwardly in the no man’s land between the door and the seating area, perhaps because mine is his first visit after 10 weeks in jail.

Once he is seated, I notice a red gash on his forehead and a graze on his cheek. He winces as he touches the split skin. “I was slapped by my cellmate,” he mumbles. “I fell and I caught my head on the bed.” Hayes’s face is covered with a film of sweat, his eyes darting from side to side and his hands faintly shaking. He asks for a cold drink and some food to settle his nerves. “Thank you,” he calls as I go to the kiosk. “I’ll pay you back when I get out, mate.” As he swigs from a Coke bottle and tucks into a ham sandwich, he says he is ready to talk. “I’m OK – when you’ve been in the Marines, this is nothing,” he says.

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Head shot of Simon Hayes,  jailed for abandoning an elderly American man with dementia



Simon Hayes, who was jailed for two and a half years for his part in the plot. Photograph: SWNS

Hayes says he got to know the Curry family after moving to the US to launch an offshoot of his motorsport coaching business in 2003. He was keen to make a fresh start following the loss of his adoptive mother, Anita, who died from cancer in 2001. “When she was being treated, it was difficult,” he recalls. “I viewed Ken [his adoptive father] and Anita as my real parents and loved them very much – still do.” He had also just recovered from a serious car accident, in which his hire car collided with a lorry near Silverstone racing circuit, where he had been training drivers. “It was a good opportunity,” he says. “I was also trying to figure out what my mum’s death meant to me. I felt I needed to get away.”

Hayes settled in Los Angeles and his business started to grow, with amateur and professional drivers based in the US seeking his help. He was introduced to Kevin Curry by a mutual acquaintance; the two men shared a fascination with Area 51, the US air force base in Nevada that has long been a focus of conspiracy theories about alien spacecraft and extraterrestrials. “I have an interest in the unexplained,” Hayes tells me. “It doesn’t mean I believe that aliens exist.” He claims Kevin’s interest in Area 51 stemmed from his father’s connection to the base. “Roger served at Area 51 as an air force technician. His family were trying to get an explanation as to why his particular dementia deteriorated so abruptly,” he says, implying a connection.

Despite the age difference – Hayes was 44, Kevin 29 – the pair grew close. Hayes spent Christmas 2010 with Kevin, Roger, then 70, and his wife, Mary Jo, then 59, at their house in a middle-class suburb of LA. However, Hayes soon found that all was not well with the Curry family. Mary Jo had Parkinson’s disease and was finding it increasingly hard to look after her husband who, according to Hayes, was already suffering from dementia. Kevin told him the family couldn’t afford to put his father in a care home.

“I was being asked to help out with Roger – I could see that he was becoming harder to manage,” Hayes recalls. He remembers that Mary Jo would struggle to lift Roger from his chair and that sometimes he would lash out. “I know that, through no fault of his own, Roger was at times uncontrollably violent towards Mary Jo,” he says.

Hayes also had his own problems. He says his “tumultuous” marriage to an American woman – whom he had met and married soon after arriving in the country – broke down in 2011. Then, in 2013, he was arrested for drink-driving. Hayes claims he had a fight with another prisoner in a holding cell, which led to his deportation. “I wouldn’t give him my sunglasses. We got into an altercation, and then they filed charges that I incited a riot. They revoked my visa and gave me a date to turn up at the airport,” he says.

His account doesn’t fully tally with official records. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement says Hayes was deported for overstaying his visa after his arrest for “driving under the influence” by California Highway Patrol in 2013. Hayes had entered the US in 2007 under the department’s visa-waiver programme, which typically allows British citizens to come to the US on holiday or business for up to 90 days.

Back in the UK, Hayes moved to Somerset to live with his father, Ken, in a mobile home park; Ken was 90 and in poor health. America, though, was still on Hayes’s mind; he unsuccessfully applied for visas and stayed in regular contact with Kevin. “He was a friend who was going through a very stressful period,” Hayes explains. “I tried my best to be supportive.” He says Kevin asked him to look into ways of bringing Roger to the UK, and admits that he researched possible British care homes, but insists he had no idea that Kevin was planning to dump his father here. “Roger was getting worse. He was contemplating healthcare facilities in Mexico, Canada and the UK,” he says.

In 2015, Kevin announced he would be coming to Europe on holiday with his children, while Roger and Mary Jo stayed in a respite home. He said he would be stopping off in the UK and invited his old friend to join him. “I never take any time off, so I was excited to have a break,” Hayes says. But when he went to meet Kevin at Gatwick airport, he claims he was shocked to see Roger and Mary Jo coming through the arrivals gate, too. “Roger was in a wheelchair. He couldn’t walk. Mary Jo looked exhausted. She could barely stand up. They had deteriorated since I had last seen them,” he says. “Kevin told me that the hospital would not take them.”

That night they booked into the nearby Gatwick Marriott hotel. Hayes says Kevin asked him to take Roger to hospital, so they coud have their family holiday. Hayes says he felt sorry for Kevin and agreed. “I said, ‘Give yourselves a week and then pick your dad up, or make an arrangement with the authorities so that your dad can stay here and be financially supported by his insurance company,’” he says. “But I did not for one minute suggest or insinuate, in any way, shape or form, that he should be abandoned in this country.”

Kevin booked a hire car, naming Hayes as an additional driver. In the morning, Hayes drove 157 miles to Hereford bus station, with Roger dressed in new clothes and stripped of his ID. This part of Hayes’s account is particularly puzzling: if Roger was sick, why not choose a closer hospital? There were two – East Surrey and Crawley – within about six miles. Bizarrely, Hayes claims he chose Hereford hospital because he had visited it once before with a client and thought it “was more straightforward than driving all over London”. He acknowledges that his decision “seems odd”, adding only that he was “suffering from mental health issues” that clouded his judgment.

Did he know Roger had been stripped of anything that could identify him, and dressed in new clothes that would provide investigators with few clues? Hayes says not, but remembers that Kevin had borrowed his credit card to do some shopping before they left for Hereford. “I had told Kevin: ‘I’m not a nurse. I’m not responsible for dressing or anything else to do with your dad – I’m offering to drive him to a safe, lawful location where he can get medical treatment, and that’s it.’”

Stonebow Road near Hereford, where Roger Curry was abandoned.



Stonebow Road, where Roger Curry was abandoned. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Guardian

That afternoon, he parked in Hereford bus station and led Roger towards the hospital. Why did he tell the passerby and paramedics that he had found him face down in the countryside? “I wanted to give the family some time… at least a week,” he says sheepishly. How did it feel to leave a confused and distressed old man, without any medication or paperwork? Hayes hesitates, searching for the right words. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” he says. “But I did it because I’d seen the lack of care he got from his own country and government – a former veteran, I might add, which is disgraceful.”

Hayes returned to Gatwick and joined the rest of the Curry family on holiday in Copenhagen. They stayed in a city-centre hotel, but Mary Jo was in such poor health she rarely left it. Instead, Hayes says, he went for long walks with Kevin and they talked about Roger’s future. “It was an odd holiday,” he says. “It wasn’t relaxing. I felt uncomfortable with the situation I’d been put in.”

Hayes left Copenhagen before the Currys. He contends that he had no idea Roger was left behind when Kevin and his mother later returned to the US. He says that when he spoke to Kevin in the weeks and months that followed, he was told Roger was back at home. “I don’t want to say he was lying to me…” he says, his voice trailing off, as if struggling to shake off some lingering loyalty to Kevin. “He misled me, whether it was for the right or the wrong reasons.”

***

So-called granny dumping – where families unable to afford or cope with their caring responsibilities offload elderly relatives on to hospitals – is not uncommon in the US. As far back as 1992, the American College of Emergency Physicians estimated that 70,000 elderly people were being abandoned each year. Dr Kevin Biese, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of North Carolina, says medical staff routinely encounter elderly people, with no pressing health needs, brought into emergency departments because their families cannot cope. “Frequently we see the family saying their elderly relative ‘had a fever yesterday’ or ‘chest pain’, but what they’re really saying is, ‘We just can’t take it’,” he says.

Outright abandonments, where the family leave a relative unattended, are rarer, but still happen, especially in poorer areas. “Every emergency doctor has at least several patients a year where that is the case,” Biese says. He blames the lack of support for caregivers in the US. “There is a tremendous burden placed on adult children,” he says. Medicaid-funded facilities are available only to the very poorest older people. “These places are not where any of us would want to live. You might have 30 patients to one nursing assistant.”

Hereford bus station



Hayes drove Roger – in new clothes, with no ID – 157 miles to Hereford bus station, before trying to walk him to the local hospital. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Guardian

According to Age UK, a record 1.4 million older people in England are not getting the support they need at home to carry out essential everyday tasks, such as getting out of bed and going to the toilet, because of the chronic underfunding of local social care services. Tom Gentry, the charity’s senior health influencing manager, says some of these people are ending up in A&E departments because their carers cannot cope. “These families are at the whip end of having to care for elderly relatives. Hospital is perceived to be the only option because the local authority isn’t helping.”

Research by the charity has revealed that almost 1,000 over-65s are needlessly admitted to hospital every month. Gentry says doctors even have medical terms for admitting patients who are not in need of hospitalisation. “If a frail older person comes in with quite unspecific needs, they get ‘social admission’ written on their notes. There’s even a phrase, ‘acopia’, which is basically doctors’ code for saying someone can’t cope at home,” he says.

Gentry suspects more and more British families caring for elderly relatives are reaching breaking point: “Our sense is that it is getting worse, because the population is ageing and funding is barely keeping up.”

***

In Hereford county hospital, the nurses looking after Roger had gleaned some useful information from their good-natured but inscrutable new patient. He recalled on one fleeting occasion that his full name was Roger Curry – something he never managed to repeat during the rest of his stay in the UK. Not long afterwards he was moved to Credenhill Court rest home on the outskirts of town, which provides specialist care for dementia patients. His care was funded by Herefordshire council.

Meanwhile, West Mercia police were running out of ideas. Usually dementia patients are quickly reunited with their families, but this was different. All they had was a name, but they couldn’t be sure even that was correct. They checked missing person reports, examined CCTV footage and contacted the US and Canadian authorities. A social media campaign was launched.

It was not until 2016, months later, that the police decided to appeal again for information; this time, Roger’s story was featured on BBC and Sky News. A woman called Rebecca Reece came forward – the passerby who had flagged down the ambulance. She herself fell under suspicion; the police thought Roger might be her husband, but this was quickly ruled out.

In March, the US authorities provided Hereford police with a list of names and addresses that could be linked to Roger Curry. One of these was a Kevin Curry of Whittier, California. An officer called the number linked to the address, but the person who answered claimed no one by the name of Curry lived there.

That call prompted Kevin to make contact with Hayes, who says he had an emotional conversation with Mary Jo. She warned him that if he came clean, Roger would be returned to the US, where he would end up homeless because the family could not look after him.

That month, Hayes researched Roger’s case online before calling the police; the judge remarked that this phone call was “perhaps an example of the defendant’s loose grasp upon reality”, as there is no certainty that he would otherwise have been found. Hayes didn’t confess, however. Instead he painted a picture of a glamorous life in which he travelled internationally and lived in Los Angeles. He said he had been with a Canadian serviceman when they’d found a confused old man wandering on a dual carriageway. In subsequent calls, he told officers he had been attending a course at the local SAS base, and twice changed the location where he claimed to have found Roger. Still, nothing seems to have rung alarm bells. Indeed, Hayes went on to give officers a full statement, which led to further public appeals.

It wasn’t until April that his story began to unravel. The police became suspicious that Roger might in fact be Hayes’s father; this led them to Ken Hayes and his new wife, who stunned officers with the news that his son knew the Curry family. They also revealed that he was not living in California, as he claimed, but had been deported to the UK three years ago.

***

Darragh MacIntyre was working on a Panorama film about missing people in the UK when he chanced on Roger’s case in 2016. “I met him in the nursing home in Hereford,” he says. “The poor guy was trying his best but it wasn’t really an interview.” He was struck by how staff in Credenhill Court doted on Roger. “He was loved in the care home,” MacIntyre recalls. “Some people’s character can change with dementia, but Roger was lovely. The only thing that drove staff to distraction was his love of muffins. He could eat four or five in one sitting.”

Roger wasn’t included in the missing persons film but MacIntyre and his colleagues were intrigued by the mystery. They followed up a post on a BBC Midlands Facebook page by a viewer who had found a picture of a man named Earl Roger Curry from a 1950s US high school yearbook. MacIntyre’s colleagues were able to trace this man to LA. They then used Google Earth to look at his last known address in Whittier: “We came upon what looked to be a burnt-out shack of a house in an otherwise wealthy neighbourhood,” MacIntyre says.

An officer who picked up the phone at the Whittier police department told the BBC that there had been a fire at the house in 2014. He also mentioned that Roger had Alzheimer’s, his wife had Parkinson’s disease and his son, Kevin, had been in prison. The BBC team flew out to investigate further. The family’s former neighbours confirmed that it was indeed the same Roger Curry.

Credenhill Court rest home, near Hereford



Unable to trace his family, Herefordshire council paid for Roger to stay in Credenhill Court rest home. Photograph: Francesca Jones/The Guardian

That was not all: the neighbours mentioned that, several months before Roger appeared in Hereford, the police had been called to the burnt-out house to rescue Roger and Mary Jo. A police report records that Roger had been seen wandering around behind a padlocked chain-link fence early in the morning. The police broke in and discovered Roger and Mary Jo had been sleeping on an inflatable mattress in the porch. There was some water and food in a cool box. Kevin denied any involvement, even though the police found a key for the padlock on his keyring.

MacIntyre also established that Roger had taken out a restraining order against his son in 2000. Roger had claimed Kevin – who, it emerged, has previous convictions for assault with a deadly weapon, domestic assault and fraud, as well as burglary – had on one occasion pinned him up against a wall, and on another allegedly threatened to “mess him up”, claiming he “could kill him”.

The Panorama team didn’t manage to find Kevin, but their breakthrough prompted the British authorities to make arrangements for Roger’s repatriation. On 14 July 2016, a heavily sedated Roger touched down at Los Angeles International airport without any fanfare or press attention. He was later interviewed at a hospital by an official from Los Angeles County, who noted Roger had trouble talking and couldn’t keep his eyes open. LA County lawyers then lodged a successful application to appoint a conservator to run his affairs. It stated: “No one in his family is prepared to accept responsibility for him. His own wife and son abused him when they took him overseas only to abandon him there.”

That same month, the BBC returned to LA. MacIntyre staked out the former family home for two or three days before Kevin finally showed up to collect the mail. Kevin briefly spoke to MacIntyre off camera. He denied doing anything wrong: he said his father had become ill on a holiday in England and he had asked someone to take him to hospital. “It didn’t add up,” MacIntyre says. “Why hadn’t he tried to find his dad?”

He waited outside until Kevin emerged to collect his car. “I asked him to do a proper interview,” he says. “He refused and did one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen: he pulled his hood over his face and got in his car. But he couldn’t drive very quickly because he couldn’t see where he was going. It was the strangest of getaways.” Kevin has not commented publicly or responded to requests from journalists, including me, since that encounter with the BBC more than three years ago.

Before leaving the US, MacIntyre visited the care home where Roger was staying. It was a disturbing experience: “He was in a very dark room, with curtains pulled. There was a fresh wound on his head. There was blood on his pillow. He looked completely different from the person I’d met in Hereford,” he says. “He looked uncared for.”

A few days later, MacIntyre returned to find Roger in a better condition. “The bedclothes had been changed. He still had the wound, but he had been shaved. That was of some comfort,” he says. “But I was still left with the impression that he would have been better off if he had remained in Hereford.” Does he regret having found Roger’s family? No, he says: “I think people have to be held to account for what they do. I don’t think it is permissible on any level to abandon your loved ones like they did. It is morally wrong.”

***

The BBC’s efforts led to Hayes’s arrest. Officers interviewed him in his father’s home in Somerset, in April 2016. He came clean about his friendship with Kevin and admitted taking Roger to Hereford.

The CPS barrister, Simon Davis, who went on to prosecute Hayes, has more than 20 years’ experience of serious and complex crimes, from murder to money laundering. Yet he found this case unique, not least because Hayes had little to gain from his deceptions. “It was a very odd case, but then he was a very odd defendant,” he says, on the phone from his home in Birmingham. “Everything he had said at the scene in November 2015 was rubbish. Everything he said to the woman he met near the hospital and the paramedics was rubbish. Everything he said when he made contact with the police in 2016 was rubbish. His lengthy witness statement, which ran to many pages, was also full of rubbish,” Davis says.

The barrister told the court in April this year that Hayes was a “pathological liar” who led police on “a wild goose chase”, wasting huge amounts of police time and public funds, and costing the NHS an estimated £20,000 to look after Roger. His lies, Davis argued, led to innocent people falling under suspicion, such as the passerby, Rebecca Reece. They also jeopardised Roger’s care: while he was in the UK, he had no access to his dementia medicine and medical records. It wasn’t just the lies Hayes was alleged to have told in Hereford: Davis suggested in court that his backstory was “full of fantasy and fiction”, and that “falsifying his past, falsifying his connections and his credentials were all part and parcel of his everyday life”.

Hayes understandably balks at this characterisation. “What the prosecution said is absolute bunkum,” he tells me in Oakwood prison. “Nobody makes up a 25-plus-year career, especially the career I’m in where everybody knows each other,” he says. Some of the drivers he has trained seem to partly back this up. Blair Chang, an LA estate agent who used to race in a pro-amateur series, confirms he was trained by Hayes for a couple of years. “He’s the best trainer of motor sports drivers that I have ever come across,” he says. “He was very well respected in the industry.” Chang, who became friends with Hayes, disputes the way he was depicted in court: “I didn’t see a bad bone in his body, to be quite honest.”

US motor sports journalist David Malsher recalls that Hayes was a familiar face at Champ Car and IndyCar races for about six years. “He was attached to a couple of drivers, but he was generally ultra-quiet and came across as very intense and a bit of a loner. A couple of times I was asked by people, ‘Who’s that weird little dude with X or Y driver?’”

But the Royal Navy has no record of Hayes serving with the Marines, and the McLaren Formula One racing team has no record of him working as human performance director, as he claimed in a local newspaper in 2015.

Hayes, who has no previous convictions in this country, is by all accounts a complicated character. Yet a psychologist who examined him before he was sentenced found that behind “his grandiose expressions about his capabilities, his business acumen” lay a vulnerable man with “a tragic background of loss”.

He now readily admits to misleading the police – although he stresses he was motivated by a desire to help. “The only serious lies I’ve told were in protection of Roger and his family,” he says. Does he feel that Kevin took advantage of him? “I would say probably, to a degree, but I understand why he did it,” he says.

Meanwhile, Hayes’s adoptive family have stuck by him. His father, Ken, remembers a good-natured boy who did well at school. “He didn’t put a foot wrong until he went to America. He was everything I wanted from a son,” he says on the phone from Somerset. He feels his son was led astray. “I met Kevin once when I went on holiday to see Simon,” he says. “I think Simon has been treated unfairly by him.”

The court heard that Kevin played a much bigger role in the plot, and stood to gain more if it succeeded. He was the one who, in advance of their trip to Europe, purchased return tickets for everyone in the family, apart from his father. He took Roger and Mary Jo on the plane, and booked the hire car that would take his father to Hereford.

During Hayes’s trial, the prosecution stated that Kevin was under investigation for abuse, fraud and kidnap in the US. This was repeated by West Mercia police in the days after Hayes was convicted. Yet the Los Angeles county district attorney’s office insists no criminal charges have been filed. Neither the LAPD nor the LA sheriff’s department is investigating Kevin Curry.

Since Roger was repatriated, Kevin and Mary Jo have managed to keep a low profile. Mary Jo, who is thought to be living with her son in Norwalk, California, appeared with a lawyer at a 2016 hearing to determine Roger’s fate; she never filed a counterpetition to that of LA county to appoint a probate conservator. Only one member of the wider family has broken ranks. Tim Otters, Kevin’s uncle, told a Daily Mail reporter this year that Kevin had misled him about Roger’s whereabouts when he last saw him. “Kevin’s been a total liar ever since he was a little kid,” Otters is reported to have said.

MacIntyre tells me it seems wrong that Hayes is the only person who ended up in prison. “Simon’s motivation may well have been to help his friend, Kevin. There is certainly an irony that he is the one who has been punished,” he says.

Meanwhile, Roger has been through a succession of care homes and is now in the Long Beach area of LA. His court-appointed conservator, Lorraine Tafoya, visited him last year. In a report filed with the court, she says she found him upbeat but noted that he had not had any visits from family or friends. He was in need of shoes, clothing and underwear.

In her latest report, submitted in May this year, she found that Roger’s health had worsened, leading to him being hospitalised twice. He is no longer able to walk and needs help eating, grooming and bathing. Now 79, Roger did not speak to Tafoya but his carers told her – in a familiar refrain, from Hereford to LA – that he remained “mild-mannered and respectful”.

The LA county department of mental health says neither Roger’s wife nor son – who is allowed to see him, providing he does not take him out of the care home – has been to visit him since he was flown back to the US in 2016.

***

At Oakwood prison, the G4S guards announce our visiting session is nearing its end. Girlfriends kiss boyfriends. Middle-aged men squeeze their sons’ shoulders. Brothers embrace. Hayes gets up from behind the empty cups, bottles and packets covering the table. His blood-stained head drops and he troops back towards the holding cell.

In these final moments, his mask again appears to slip and the vulnerability noted by his psychologist is plain to see. It is hard not to be reminded of the judge’s observation that Hayes’s actions, while certainly costly, “may have been a misguided attempt to help another”.

If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).



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