Bid to stop husband cleared of murder getting late wife’s millions

The family of a wealthy heiress who drowned in a swimming pool are asking a judge to rule she was unlawfully killed to stop her husband getting her £4.4 million will after his murder trial collapsed.

Property developer Donald McPherson, 50, had denied the murder of Paula Leeson, 47, in 2017, and a judge ordered the jury to find him not guilty at his trial in 2021, as there was insufficient evidence for a safe conviction.

Her family want a judge to rule he killed her so he forfeits any legal entitlement from benefiting from his late wife’s will and other assets worth £4.4 million, Manchester Civil Court of Justice heard.

Before her death, McPherson had taken out seven “secret” life insurance policies on his “besotted” wife and stood to gain £3.5 million from the policies if she died, his murder trial in 2021 heard.

He claimed to be sleeping when she drowned in the pool at the remote holiday cottage in western Denmark where they were staying on June 6, 2017.

The next day he began transferring large sums of money from her accounts to clear his debts and a week later joined a group, Widowed and Young, he described as, “Tinder for Widows”.

Ms Leeson’s family have brought a case against him in the civil courts – her father, Willy, an Irish businessman and owner of the family construction firm, brother Neville and only son, Ben, attended the hearing as their lawyer, Lesley Anderson KC, opened their case to the judge, Mr Justice Richard Smith.

McPherson, who had previously told the judge he would attend the hearing, was not present and the case went ahead without him.

He is believed to be living in several countries in the South Pacific, including French Polynesia and Fiji.

Wayne Rooney court case
The case is being heard at Manchester Civil Justice Centre (Dave Thompson/PA)

The court has been told McPherson has been convicted of 32 criminal offences of dishonesty or fraud in New Zealand, where he was born, the UK and Germany, where he was jailed for involvement in an £11.8 million bank fraud.

Ms Anderson said, “The central issue still stands – what happened in Denmark?

“It is not an issue the cause of death was drowning. The only issue is the manner of death. It is the manner of death that causes the death to be unlawful.”

Ms Leeson, who was 5ft 5 inches tall, drowned in the pool that was under 4ft deep, though she could swim and was an otherwise healthy, mother-of-one.

Ms Anderson continued: “Essentially our case is that Paula must have been unconscious when she went into the water, otherwise her natural reaction would be to stand up to save herself.

“Therefore, she must have gone into the water unconscious. We do say it probably was a choke hold or a neck hold.”

Despite walking around with wads of cash in elastic bands presenting as a “man of means” in fact McPherson was struggling financially, it was suggested.

Ms Anderson said at the time of the death n was “running out of money” which, “super-charged the financial motive” for him so he “had to do something.”

She said McPherson had given “inconsistent and dishonest” accounts of what had happened in Denmark.

He had also “systematically” deleted data from his wife’s phone which may have explained what happened, Ms Anderson said, and was a man who had shown, “almost no upset or remorse” over her death.

McPherson’s murder trial was dramatically halted in March 2021 by trial judge Mr Justice Goose, ruling insufficient evidence to jurors to safely convict as the prosecution case was based on circumstantial evidence. Crucially, an accidental death could not be ruled out.

He directed the jury to return a not guilty verdict to murder.

Pathologists found 13 separate injuries on Ms Leeson’s body, which jurors heard may have been sustained while being restrained or in a rescue and resuscitation

Prosecutors had alleged while Ms Leeson’s death looked like a tragic accident, in fact it was a pre-planned killing by her husband, who was born Alexander James Lang and originally from New Zealand.

He and Ms Leeson were wed following a “whirlwind romance” in a “no expense spared” ceremony at Peckforton Castle, Cheshire, in June 2014.

Ms Leeson had stood to inherit the family business owned by her father, who had built up a successful groundwork and skip hire firm in Sale, Greater Manchester, after emigrating from County Wicklow, Ireland, in the 1960s.

She oversaw the skip hire business – where she met McPherson, who renovated and sold on property.

After he was acquitted in a statement through his solicitors, McPherson denied any involvement in his wife’s death.

The hearing continues.