Conman controlled victims for years with IRA spy yarns

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The Independent Online

As a barman and car salesman Robert Hendy-Freegard appeared to live an ordinary life. But he had an exciting secret existence as far as some were concerned. At least eight people, including a lawyer, a civil servant and a psychologist, were convinced that he was an MI5 and Special Branch agent dodging IRA hitmen.

Yesterday, however, the 34-year-old was exposed as one of the country's most extraordinary conmen, who had posed as a spy for a decade to trick his victims out of more than £600,000, and possibly as much as £1m. He also controlled the lives of many of his victims – six of them women – to an incredible level. He persuaded three students that they were in such danger from Irish terrorists that they must go into hiding. For years the two women and a man slept in dilapidated "safe houses" while handing over almost all their money to Hendy-Freegard. One of the students went on to have two of his children.

In addition, the conman had affairs with a series of women, several of whom became engaged to him. On occasions one of the women was forced to live on a Mars bar a day and drink water from public lavatories. Another victim spent three weeks hiding in a bathroom.

These abusive relationships enabled him to live a life of luxury, driving executive cars, wearing expensive clothes, including a collection of hand-made Italian shoes, and enjoying first-class holidays.

But that lifestyle was consigned to history after he was convicted yesterday at Blackfriars Crown Court in London of two counts of kidnap, 10 charges of theft and eight counts of deception. After four days of deliberation the jury cleared him of two counts of kidnap, one count of theft and one of making a threat to kill.

Hendy-Freegard, who will be sentenced later, was warned by the judge that he could expect a life term.

Godfrey Carey QC, for the prosecution, described the case as "the most unusual, truly out-of-the-ordinary case, the extraordinary against the unbelievable. His dishonesty and manipulation of others seemingly knew no limits."

Born in 1971 in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, he was raised by his mother, Roberta, after his parents separated. He left school at 15 with no qualifications. But Hendy-Freegard found he could use deception to make his living when, in 1992, he befriended three students from Harper Adams Agricultural College in Newport, Shropshire.

He told them that he was a Special Branch agent and his job as a barman was a cover for his investigation of an IRA cell at the college.

Two of them, John Atkinson and Sarah Smith, who were going out together, came from wealthy farming families. The third was Maria Hendy.

He told Mr Atkinson that he had "singled him out" to help in the mission and persuaded him to undergo a series of "tests" that included being taken into the pub cellar and beaten.

Hendy-Freegard later told them that his cover had been blown, his life was in danger and the three students were also under threat. They all needed to flee. The group ended up in a flat in Sheffield. Mr Atkinson and Ms Smith slept in the attic, while Ms Hendy became Hendy-Freegard's lover. Other "safe houses" followed, from Aberdeen to Torquay. Hendy-Freegard forced the students to live in appalling conditions and convinced them to break off contact with their families.

In most places Mr Atkinson and Ms Smith got part-time jobs and handed over their wages. Ms Smith was conned for 10 years and was left nearly £200,000 poorer after emptying her trust fund, taking out loans, and begging for money from her parents. Mr Atkinson proved the most lucrative catch and handed over more than £300,000 – most of it from his father, a Cumbrian farmer.

Hendy-Freegard met his fourth victim, Elizabeth Richardson, in a car salesroom where she worked in Sheffield, and began an affair. It was 1995, she was 22, and had only been married for six months. The conman had a hold over Mrs Richardson because he had taken pictures of her naked which he threatened to show to her husband. She loved the fraudster, but was told she would have to undergo "loyalty tests" to satisfy MI5.

They included sleeping at Heathrow for several nights at a time, and living on park benches in Peterborough for weeks during winter. On some occasions she was given £1 a week to live on so she could buy a Mars bar and eat a slice of bread a day.

Renata Kister, a company director, was seven months' pregnant and had just separated from her partner when she became another victim of the conman. He persuaded her to buy a better car, but kept the £10,000 he got for her old one. Then he convinced her to take out a £15,000 loan for him.

Lesley Gardner succumbed to his advances in a Newcastle nightclub in November 1996 – and spent six years being conned out of money. She lost more than £16,000 amid claims of IRA blackmail and execution threats.

Hendy-Freegard met Caroline Cowper, a legal adviser, at a car salesroom in Chiswick, west London, in the summer of 2000. He persuaded her to part with £12,800 twice in consecutive months for a money-making scheme, but she got nothing. She took him to court and made him bankrupt and then tracked down several other of his victims and went to the police. But by that time Hendy-Freegard had already snared his last victim, Kimberley Adams, an American child psychologist.

The film producer's daughter met him in August 2002. Just weeks into the 14-month relationship she agreed to marry him.

She gave him £20,000, supposedly to fund "spy school" and a new life monitoring Russian submarines in the North Sea. Hendy-Freegard was arrested at Heathrow in May 2003 as the pair returned from a three-month tour of Europe.

"His technique was simple," explained Detective Sergeant Bob Brandon, the case officer. "He would identify a person's weakness and then zero in on it. He also physically and psychologically isolated them, so they would depend on him even more." Even now police doubt whether they have discovered all his victims.

Jaclyn Zappacosta, an FBI agent assigned to the case, said: "He was probably the best I have seen at affecting deceit, subterfuge – probably in my career. He excelled at what he did."

Hendy-Freegard's bizarre 'tests'

* A former student had to wear a bucket over her head while being ferried to a so-called "safe-house". She spent three weeks in a bathroom after being told to hide there.

* A woman had to spend every evening in the dark crawling from room to room because of fears that a sniper was targeting the property.

* A male jeweller was sent on a "MI5 mission" to Manchester to buy a £1.25 can opener. He then had to take the opener to a pub in London's West End where he handed it to the bemused barman.

* A newly-wed woman was given £1 a week to live on. She used it to buy a Mars bar and eat a slice of bread a day, visiting public toilets to get water.

* An agricultural student dyed his hair, wore a cowboy outfit, tried to kiss a stranger, declared his love for another and punched a friend in the face as part of "Special Branch" tests.

* A woman celebrated her 31st birthday by waiting 14 hours for him at "bitterly cold" Kettering railway station. No one turned up.

* A child psychologist handed over £20,000, supposedly to fund a "spy school" and a new life monitoring Russian submarines in the North Sea.

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