'Swiss gigolo' on trial for extortion

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The Independent Online

Nicknamed the “Swiss gigolo”, Helg Sgarbi is accused of seducing Germany’s richest woman, making a secret video of them having passionate sex in a hotel bedroom and then trying to blackmail her for €14 million by threatening to publish the incriminating material.

Today the 44-year-old - who once boasted to police: “I live off the money women give me” - will appear before a Munich court charged with attempting to extort millions from BMW heiress Susanne Klatten and a string of other wealthy women. If convicted he could face 15 years in jail.

His trail has been billed as one of the most sensational and potentially lurid court cases in German legal history. If the prosecution fails to secure a full confession from the accused, the normally reclusive Mrs Klatten, and other female victims will almost certainly be asked to appear as witnesses.

Yet one of the most intriguing questions posed by the case is the extent to which Mr Sgarbi was controlled, even brainwashed, by his shadowy Italian mentor, the mysterious quasi-religious sect leader, Ernano Barretta, who is reputed to have once claimed that he could “walk on water”.

Mr Barretta, 63, is currently languishing in an Italian jail and awaiting a court decision on whether charges can be brought against him. The Swiss gigolo met the former car mechanic more than a decade ago and is thought to be the most faithful of the sect leader’s 30, so-called “disciples.”

Speculation was rife in the German media yesterday that Mr Sgarbi had vowed to keep silent about his Italian mentor, and Barretta’s name is not mentioned on the charge sheet.

The Swiss-born gigolo used to boast to his wealthy female conquests that he was “Switzerland’s special envoy for crisis zones” in an attempt to explain away his sudden disappearances in order to seduce other women. His favourite method of extorting cash from his victims was to announce that he had run over a child in either Italy or America and was being blackmailed by the Mafia as a result.

His extraordinary career is thought to have started in 2001 when he managed to convince the wealthy 83-year-old Countess Verena du Pasquier Geubels that he was hopelessly in love with her by sending three roses to her Monte Carlo hotel. Mr Sgarbi persuaded her to part with twelve million Swiss francs before he was finally exposed. However, the countess eventually withdrew charges against him and died the following year.

A string of other wealthy women followed. In one case Mr Sgarbi told one 64-year-old victim he urgently needed Euros 1.5 million because a video he had taken of them having sex had fallen into the hands of the Mafia who were now trying to blackmail both of them. He told his female conquest that he had made the video so he could “satisfy” himself when she was not there. The woman believed him, has declined to bring charges and is reported to be still paying off the debt.

He allegedly tried to play the same trick on 46-year-old Susanne Klatten, whom he met at Austria’s elite Lanserhof spa hotel in July 2007. Mrs Klatten, who is married with three children and reputed to be worth around £8.5 billion, initially spurned his advances. But when he suddenly showed up a month later in the south of France, where she was on holiday, they began an affair.

In August they met again at Munich’s Holiday Inn hotel, where Mr Sgarbi is alleged to have made a video of them having sex. A month later he is alleged to have told her that he needed Euros 7 million because he had injured a little girl in a car crash in Florida. Mrs Klatten complied and handed over the cash in the hotel’s underground car park.

But evidently Sgarbi was not satisfied. He is alleged to have demanded that Mrs Klatten leave her husband and hand him Euros 290 million so that they could “start a new life together”. When she refused Mr Sgarbi is said to have threatened to publish his incriminating sex video. At that point, the heiress told her husband, informed the police and the gigolo was arrested. “I realised that he wasn’t the man he claimed to be. I realised the folly of what I had done,” she is reported to have told detectives.