A 44-year-old mother-of-nine who left her husband and kids to begin a relationship with a Gambian man who is 12 years her junior has said nothing will stop her from marrying him. She also says she’s prepared to convert to Islam and move with her kids to The Gambia just to be with him.

Heidi Hepworth ran off last month to be with Salieu Jallow who she met on Facebook. Heidi’s husband, Andy, also 44, spoke of his ­horror at discovering his wife of 23 years had gone off to meet Salieu, who had contacted her on Facebook from The Gambia, West Africa.

Her decision sparked a police investigation and Andy said:

“It’s a mid-life crisis. The person she has become is horrible. A caring mum wouldn’t go off ­gallivanting around Africa with her new boyfriend.”

Now, speaking exclusively to The Sun, Heidi has defended her actions, saying: “I don’t have a single regret. I’m not a terrible parent.

“It was really hard for me to leave my kids, but they couldn’t come with me so I had no choice. I was shocked at the anger that was directed at me for supposedly abandoning my children. That just didn’t happen.”

Heidi has two sons and a daughter aged 24 to 29 from a previous relationship. She and Andy have three daughters aged six, nine and 23 and three sons aged 11, 17 and 18.

She added:

“The three youngest were left with my eldest daughter. She moved into my home while I was away so that they were disrupted as little as possible.

“I went online every night and we video-chatted. They seemed happy and I know my kids well. They also chatted to Salieu and have become very fond of him through talking online over the past few months. If people think I went over to The Gambia and didn’t give them a second thought, they are so wrong.

“But having said that, I make no apologies for following my heart. I’ve been unhappy for a long time and I think I have found someone to spend the rest of my life with. We are in love and nothing will stop me from marrying him. If other people don’t like that they will just have to lump it.”

Heidi’s romance rocked her family and made her the talk of her town, Hetton-le-Hole in Sunderland. Her car mechanic husband, Andy blamed her online romance for killing their marriage but Heidi insists the relationship was over before Salieu first sent her a Facebook friend request. She also claims Andy was messaging women online behind her back, which he denies.

Heidi said:

“Andy and I didn’t even share a bedroom, never mind a bed, for the last two years of our marriage. We were both unhappy and on some days the most conversation I would get from him would be when he’d say, ‘Put the kettle on’. At the end of last year I picked up his phone to look up a number my daughter wanted and saw messages from two women. It was a big shock. We drifted even further apart and I was so unhappy. I started volunteering at the children’s school, just so I had some contact with other people and could feel better about myself.

In February this year, Heidi began chatting online with Salieu after he sent her a friend request out of the blues. Soon they were closer and she began confiding in him about what was going on in her marriage and with time, they noticed they were in love with each other.

Although she had never flown or even been abroad, Heidi travelled to The Gambia at the end of October to meet shopkeeper Salieu in person for the first time. But locals back home were furious at her arrangements for her three youngest children. Their school was tipped off, leading to a police investigation, but officers were satisfied the kids were being cared for properly.

Heidi said:

“I was shocked by the reaction. Anyone who knows me would confirm that my children are my world and always have been, but I believe Salieu is my future. I’ll do whatever it takes to be with him, but it has to mean we are all together — me, him and the children. I don’t know how we will achieve that, but we’re both determined to make it happen. It might be that Salieu comes to live with us in the UK, it might even mean we go to Gambia but that’s more complicated.”

When Heidi first saw tall, athletic Salieu at the airport she knew instantly he was the man for her. She said: “I ran into his arms and gave him a big hug.

“He was everything I had dreamed of and more. He was tall and handsome and was so nice. It just felt right. We had fallen for each other before I even reached Gambia but after a short time with him I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.

“It was a romantic, unforgettable time with a loving, caring man. I had forgotten how it feels to be wanted that much. We slept together in the same bed and although we kissed we did not have sex because Salieu is a strict Muslim and it is forbidden before marriage. I respected that because I love him completely.”

During the month Heidi was in The Gambia she met Salieu’s parents, who run a small farm in the country’s Serekunda district, a few miles from the capital, Banjul.

They spent five days in the family’s home and visited crocodile and monkey sanctuaries, went on donkey rides in the jungle and strolls along sun-kissed beaches — which Heidi said felt like a world away from home in Hetton-le-Hole.

She added:

“They were beautiful times. It was wonderful to meet his family, they were lovely and very accepting of me. I was made to feel very welcome in their home.

“Salieu has made it very clear my children are important to him and he has been talking to them for months in video conversations. He told me that my family would become part of his family, which proves how much he cares.”

After her month in The Gambia, school worker Heidi had to return to the UK but she is already planning her next visit — and the rest of her life.

She said:

“I am going to marry Salieu when my divorce comes through and I’m prepared to convert to Islam if that’s necessary. If people don’t like that they will just have to lump it. I’m not going to cry about it. We’ll be together, one way or another, whether Salieu comes to live here or I find a way to take the children to The Gambia. When I left him at the airport in Banjul it was one of the hardest things I have had to do. We were both in tears but I swore I would go back, and nothing will stop me.”

Heidi knows that cynics will claim her new lover is more interested in a British passport than life with her. In The Gambia nearly half of the two million population exist below the poverty line. The average wage is £30 a week and marriage to a “toubab” — a white foreigner — is seen as a meal ticket.

But Heidi said:

“He’s not like that. He isn’t looking for a passport or anything like that, he is happy in Gambia. He fell in love with me, not the idea of a new life abroad.”