Emma Winberg woke in the middle of the night, exhausted and overwrought by the events of the day before. Dawn was nearing and the call to prayer would soon echo across Istanbul.
Her husband, James Le Mesurier, brought her a sleeping pill. As she drifted off, she could see him standing in the darkness by the window of their rooftop apartment, smoking a cigarette and watching over her.
She slept for only an hour or so — but an hour was all it took.
The constant ringing of the doorbell jarred her into consciousness. It was about 6.30am. Groggy from the pill, she called for James to answer the door. There was no response.
James Le Mesurier (pictured in Amman) had dedicated his life to a project called Mayday Rescue. Based in Istanbul, it provided training and equipment for the White Helmets, financed by Western countries including Britain
‘It was silent, the quietest any quiet has ever been,’ she says. Emma got out of bed and moved through the apartment looking for James, but he was nowhere to be found.
Finally, she ran onto her bedroom balcony and looked left into the street. There was his body, broken on the cobbles, with police swarming around the scene.
Paramedics had cut off his clothes in the search for wounds. There was no covering to preserve his dignity.
James had taken a pill, too, but his tortured mind allowed him only a few hours of rest. Early that morning, November 11, 2019, he had crawled out of a window on to a narrow rooftop ledge — and jumped. Locals on their way to prayer raised the alarm.
On November 11, 2019 James (pictured with his wife Emma) had crawled out of a window on to a narrow rooftop ledge — and jumped
‘Imagine when you catastrophise in the early hours and everything seems awful, and you wake up and think it’s not that bad,’ says Emma. ‘But imagine there really is a reason and it is bad, and you go into that space on your own. He must have been so alone.’
The police were at her door. Emma dressed and grabbed a blanket to cover her husband’s body but was forced back by officers.
James was dead — and, initially at least, she was a suspect.
The death of James Le Mesurier, 48, made headlines worldwide. The former British Army officer was the driving force behind the legendary White Helmets, the civilian rescue teams who risk life and limb to save others in Syria’s bloody civil war.
His friends and colleagues found it hard to believe this heroic and seemingly inexhaustible man, who thrived on adversity and adventure, would take his own life.
Murky rumours of Syrian or Russian involvement in his death soon followed.
James had dedicated his life to a project called Mayday Rescue. Based in Istanbul, it provided training and equipment for the White Helmets, financed by Western countries including Britain.
James had worked to mould ordinary Syrian civilians into effective teams of rescuers prepared to brave bombs and shells to search in rubble for trapped casualties.
His role earned him an OBE and an international profile — but it made him enemies, too. To Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad and his principal ally, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the White Helmets were agents of the West, to be discredited at all costs. The cameras of the rescuers recorded the agony of the Syrian people up close.
The former British Army officer was the driving force behind the legendary White Helmets, the civilian rescue teams who risk life and limb to save others in Syria’s bloody civil war. Pictured: Brave White Helmets rescue a boy from rubble in war-torn Syria
Modern war is fought in the media as much as on the battlefield, and this graphic footage was hated in Damascus and Moscow.
James found himself pilloried by internet trolls who accused him of being an MI6 officer presiding over everything from faked chemical weapons attacks intended to discredit the Assad regime to trafficking the organs of war casualties. The rescuers were also savaged for working in areas controlled by Islamic extremists — with Russian diplomats and Moscow’s media painting them as allies of al-Qaeda. It was inevitable, then, that James’s untimely end would provoke fierce speculation.
The conspiracy theories cranked into full gear, pouring out conjecture and disinformation. Who had killed him and why? Was it Moscow, Damascus or his own side?
According to his widow, however, the ultimate cause of James’s despair lay not in international intrigue — but in a ‘campaign’ of office politics which Emma felt was being waged by one man. James hated bureaucracy. He believed in results on the ground, but to support the White Helmets he needed money.
Handsome and articulate, he was an excellent salesman. Mayday attracted some £90million in donations from its Western backers. But in his rush to expand the organisation, James neglected the paperwork. Mayday’s lax financial controls were a potential stick to beat him with.
And, according to Emma, the man who wielded the stick was his own chief financial officer, Dutchman Johan Eleveld.
Miss Winberg is blunt about Eleveld. She accuses him of driving her husband to the edge of despair in his quest to avoid his imminent dismissal and supplant James as head of Mayday.
Eleveld, she says, exploited a single mistake by James. Mayday’s boss had drawn some $50,000 (£38,000) in cash from the organisation’s safe to fund a daring rescue operation of White Helmets trapped in southern Syria — a mission he dubbed Magic Carpet.
Some of this money went missing and James later ordered staff to forge two receipts to cover up the loss. ‘I hold Johan Eleveld responsible for James’s death and the subsequent collapse of Mayday,’ says Emma.
‘He created the circumstances that led to my husband’s death, he destroyed my life, and he devastated the wonderful organisation James built.’
That a charismatic buccaneer like James could be laid low by an ambitious bean-counter seems hardly credible.
Yet former members of Mayday and an independent source with a thorough knowledge of the foundation’s finances support her claim that he painted her and her husband as embezzlers.
For his part, Eleveld vehemently denies driving his boss to suicide, claiming that his only motive was to save Mayday, with its shoddy bookkeeping, from legal action by the authorities in the Netherlands, where it was registered.
Miss Winberg and Mayday’s employees are, he says, angry at him because he threatened to turn off their ‘money tap’. What he doesn’t explain is how he, as chief financial officer of the foundation, did not do more to stop this supposed fraud at an earlier stage.
James and Emma had met in Iraq in 2016. He was 44, she 35, and both were working on the NGO (non-governmental organisation) circuit. Sandhurst-trained and a former officer in the Royal Green Jackets who had served in Kosovo, James was already twice-married, with two daughters.
Following an unsuccessful application to join MI6, he had worked for private security consultancies in the UAE.
Emma had spent a short time as a derivatives trader before joining the Foreign Office and serving in the Middle East. But like James, she was a free spirit unsuited to the restrictions of diplomatic life.
‘It was amazing: love at first sight,’ says Emma. ‘James was funny and charming and emotionally intelligent.
‘We shared the same approach to life. We were like: “Let’s do something about this and make our lives one big adventure”.’
By their second date, they were planning to live together. A month later James, son of a Royal Marines officer, asked Emma’s ailing father for her hand in marriage.
They wed in July 2018 on the Turkish island of Büyükada and the ceremony was a joyous affair.
Bride and groom were transported in a horse and carriage and James was hoisted aloft during a wedding dance, waving his sword in the air.
It was a precious moment in a frenetic existence overshadowed by the war raging a few hundred miles to the east.
James established Mayday in 2014 in response to the unfolding bloodbath in Syria.
Emma joined him as a director and the organisation expanded rapidly, ultimately managing some 3,000 volunteers deployed in more than a hundred teams.
Staff included refugees from the Syrian conflict. And because the pay for the White Helmets had to be transported into a war zone, there was a lot of cash.
Everyone involved admits that the financial controls at Mayday were inadequate.
For much of its existence it lacked proper accounting software and a supervisory board. But no one, even Eleveld, now claims that it was institutionally corrupt. Eleveld joined Mayday in August 2018. A former financial controller in the Dutch foreign ministry as well as the private sector, he was chosen by James from a limited field.
His nationality helped: although it was based in Turkey, Mayday was registered in the Netherlands as a charitable foundation.
According to Mayday employees, Eleveld was initially regarded as an odd character but not malicious. But as his involvement deepened, so his reputation darkened. He was accused of bullying junior staff and outbursts of rage. And there were the stories he told of Emma and James and their supposedly lavish lifestyle. He denies any wrongdoing.
Eleveld is said to have been the source of smears concerning James and Emma’s wedding.
He is said to have claimed to Mayday employees that Emma had used cash from the safe to buy a £67,000 wedding dress. There were tales of a luxurious honeymoon and a speedboat, bought with money that should have been going to White Helmets, who were earning just £135 a month.
The truth is that Miss Winberg borrowed some £31,000 from Mayday, most of which was paid back in a week, with the rest offset against her salary.
The money, clearly recorded in Mayday’s books, went mostly on entertaining Mayday’s staff and other guests at the wedding, while her dress was bought second-hand.
As for the honeymoon, it was a trekking and camping holiday in Oman, delayed for months by work commitments. Matters take a darker turn when it comes to the Magic Carpet money.
In July 2018, shortly after the wedding, hundreds of White Helmets were trying to escape southern Syria but were being hemmed in by the country’s forces. James used all his powers of advocacy to persuade the Israeli government to allow the White Helmets to cross into its territory on their way to safety in Jordan. Some 400 made it through in an operation that saw James go without sleep for days.
He took with him about £38,000 of Mayday cash to cover eventualities and spent £6,700.
What happened to the rest is a mystery. It seems, remarkably, that he may have lost it.
But what is clear is that he swiftly admitted liability and insisted that it be deducted from his salary. Accounts show this was carried out. There was no gain for James and no loss to Mayday. It was then that he made the mistake that would result ultimately in his mental collapse and suicide.
Believing that donor nations would take a dim view of the lost cash, he asked two Mayday employees to fabricate chits suggesting it had been returned to the foundation. According to Miss Winberg, Eleveld used this misjudgment to devastating effect.
Certainly, Eleveld raised concerns about James and Emma’s pay. Speaking to the Mail, he says that that the couple enriched themselves to the tune of £725,000 in 2018 alone.
They were, he says, not only claiming huge salaries but ‘hardship’ payments of £5,600 per month each in cash.
There is no doubt that the Le Mesuriers were handsomely paid. Following James’s death, a forensic audit was commissioned from accountants Grant Thornton and circulated to donor governments.
An official who examined the audit in detail, but who asks not to be named, told the Mail that in 2018 the couple jointly received just over £400,000, which was taxed in the Netherlands.
Good money, certainly, but some way short of the £725,000 claimed by Eleveld. The supposed cash hardship payments, meanwhile, did not exist.
Emma says: ‘We had no guarantees about our futures. There was no package. At any time, the donors could have withdrawn funding and our jobs would have been gone. James had only a tiny pension from the military.
‘We were taking extraordinary personal risks. He may not have gone into Syria, but he was involved in supporting the White Helmets in their documentation of chemical weapons use.
‘Suffice to say that he was instrumental in making sure the evidence reached the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and Porton Down [the UK’s chemical warfare defence establishment]. There were death threats — credible threats to life.
‘We took a hell of a lot of personal risk in terms of allegations of espionage and engaging with terrorism. If you are sitting in Milton Keynes it sounds like a ton of money but when you are out there in Turkey, with no real due process, with no diplomatic immunity, it’s different.
‘The Assad regime and the Russians are killing your people in Syria, members of the opposition are being bumped off in Istanbul, and you know the Russians and Syrians care about you.
‘James was mentioned by name at the UN Security Council by Russian and Syrian diplomats many times. You don’t know if you are safe, let alone whether you will work again.’
But what of the White Helmets on £135 a month?
‘James argued harder than anyone else for stipend rises in the White Helmets. He would have paid them anything he could.’
Whatever one may think of the couple’s remuneration, it was legal and declared to the donor countries. So why has Eleveld insisted on inflating it and casting doubt on their honesty?
Following his boss’s suicide, Eleveld eventually became its chief executive.
From his home in the Netherlands, he told the Mail that he warned James that the foundation, governed by strict Dutch charity laws, was in a legal ‘minefield’.
Of the sums borrowed by Emma for the wedding, he says: ‘It is very worrying for me that a person takes money and puts it back because that will be penalised [by the authorities].
‘My only concern was to not let the organisation be harmed.’
Regarding the missing Magic Carpet money and the forged documents, he says: ‘I warned [James] that it was a serious, fraudulent action and, according to Dutch law, you can end up in prison for this kind of behaviour.’
A Dutch finance expert spoken to by the Mail says the threat of prison is ‘ridiculous’ given there was no gain by James. The damage, this expert believes, would be purely reputational. Yet this warning of jail by Eleveld plunged James into crisis. Not only was he potentially personally liable, but Mayday, his beloved creation, might be shunned by donors and destroyed.
Eleveld has been accused by Mayday employees of being a bully, subject to sometimes frightening bursts of anger.
However, he insists: ‘Everyone was angry at me because I turned off the money tap. James is the one who fully understood before he committed suicide that I tried to protect him. I have a really warm heart for James.’
Eleveld emphasises that he was concerned that he would be personally liable for any financial misconduct detected by the Dutch authorities at Mayday, and that his own home and assets could have been at risk.
For Emma Winberg this is too much to take. She claims that Eleveld deliberately highlighted the false-document fraud to Dutch auditors in 2019.
He then magnified its seriousness to James during a meeting at the Novotel in Istanbul just days before his death.
This, she alleges, was part of a power grab by Eleveld designed to secure James’s removal and ensure the Dutchman’s installation as CEO. Eleveld decided on this course, she claims, because James intended to sack him for incompetence. Earlier this year, with donors pulling their funding, Mayday entered administration and its dedicated workforce was laid off.
The man who oversaw the winding down of Mayday was Cor Vrieswijk, an experienced business executive brought in to chair Mayday’s supervisory board, set up after James’s death.
Mr Vrieswijk — who has held senior posts at airlines including Easyjet — says Eleveld was the source of the smears concerning James and Emma.
‘The impression I got [from Eleveld] was that James was a crook and Emma was a crook and there was this entourage of crooked people supporting them,’ he says.
‘They had spent a lot of cash on a wedding and honeymoon and speedboats and handbags. I got the impression that this was a mob operation and Johan would be the saviour.
‘He had said to me: “You cannot trust the staff”. I mean, you cannot trust 30 or 40 people!’
It did not take long for Mr Vrieswijk to realise that these allegations were baseless. ‘Mayday’s staff were extremely hard-working, extremely trans-parent, extremely loyal and extremely supportive of each other,’ he says. ‘More and more evidence came to me that the allegations addressed at James and Emma were not true.
‘Allegations about unpaid loans to Emma — and the missing money from Magic Carpet. All this was repaid. No money was embezzled. There was no speedboat, no “honeymoon of the year”, only hard work.
‘The finance administration was a mess. That was exactly the reason that they had hired Johan — to fix this. James was not a finance guy. There was definitely an amateurish approach to this part of the operation. But systematic dishonesty? No.’
The anonymous official who has seen the Grant Thornton forensic audit agrees, saying: ‘There was no foul play here and every penny James and Emma took was fully accounted for — and Johan Eleveld knew that.’
Ironically, the only person ordered by a court to repay money to Mayday is Eleveld.
During a court case between him and Mayday earlier this year, he was ordered to surrender £17,000 of payments he authorised for himself a director.
James was already in a fragile state when Eleveld produced his bombshell warning of imprisonment and disgrace during the Novotel meeting. ‘He was very depressed already,’ says Emma, ‘because of the disinformation campaign, because he was burnt out after years of frustrating and difficult work.
‘Watching Syria, seeing people you love die, and pictures coming from the White Helmets on the ground of dead and mutilated children. He was exhausted.’
In the days before he died, he had spoken of running away from what he believed was an unfolding scandal. He would travel to Syria and work on the frontline, he said, alongside his White Helmets volunteers. Perhaps he even hoped for a noble death in war, befitting an officer and gentleman.
After Eleveld told him he had committed fraud, James immediately wrote to donor countries, offering to resign.
The Friday before his death he and Emma took the ferry home. They sat on the exposed deck, shrouded in fog.
Emma says: ‘I had this bad, bad feeling in my stomach. It was a sense of horrid foreboding.’ ‘My love, it’s ten times worse than we thought,’ James told Emma.
The next day, James was admitted to hospital in Istanbul with high blood pressure.
Emma berates herself for not taking him back there on Sunday evening, and for falling asleep at the fatal hour. ‘If I hadn’t gone to sleep, he would have had a chance,’ she says.
Emma lives in Amsterdam now. James’s ashes sit in her apartment next to a framed photo of him and a posy from their wedding.
‘I miss him so, so very much,’ she says. ‘James joked to me once, “If you can’t be a shining example… be a terrible warning”.’
James Le Mesurier, whose worked helped save tens of thousands of lives, should surely be remembered as the former.