- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

LONDON — A used-car salesman who posed as a spy for a British intelligence agency to snare his victims was sentenced to life imprisonment this week for conning them out of nearly $2 million to fund his luxury lifestyle of fast cars, designer suits and exotic vacations at five-star resorts around the world.

Police said Robert Hendy-Freegard conducted a 10-year “odyssey of deceit,” convincing at least five women and a man that they were being hunted by Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists and sending them on a run for their lives that lasted years.

Among the 34-year-old semiliterate con artist’s victims were a lawyer, an American psychologist, a company director and a recently married secretary who left her husband for a life of sleeping on park benches and surviving on a diet of candy bars and water foraged from public lavatories.

One was forced to sleep night after night for weeks at a superhighway service station, and Hendy-Freegard made another victim walk 110 miles for a meeting that never took place.

In the process, he cleaned out their bank accounts and those of his other victims — about $1.85 million in all, police estimated.

The con man was caught when police set up a sting operation that lured him from his hide-out in the Swiss Alps to his arrest at London’s Heathrow Airport.

After an eight-month trial in London’s Blackfriars Crown Court, the man whom authorities nicknamed “the Puppetmaster” was convicted and given two life sentences on 20 charges of theft, deception and kidnapping by fraud.

Judge Deva Pillay told the smiling con man, “You are an egotistical and opinionated confidence trickster who has shown not a shred of remorse or compassion for the degradation and suffering to which your victims were subjected.”

Detective Sgt. Bob Brandon, who led the investigation, said, “This is a completely different type of fraud, in which no force was used. … Basically, he conned and brainwashed his victims.”

Hendy-Freegard duped American child psychologist Kimberly Adams into running away with him, forcing her to hide in a bathroom for a week. According to testimony at the trial, a boyfriend of Miss Adams’ mother had won $100 million in a U.S. lottery, and the con man convinced the psychologist that they needed some of that money to buy a lighthouse and monitor Russian submarines in the North Sea.

John Atkinson, a student, said Hendy-Freegard “recruited” him to fight the IRA and beat him black-and-blue “to toughen him up” for a battle against the assassins that purportedly were stalking him.

After conning Mr. Atkinson and his family out of more than $720,000, the con artist persuaded Mr. Atkinson’s girlfriend, Sarah Smith, to join him on a series of bizarre “missions,” including five-star holidays in Brazil and elsewhere over several years.

Although the number of victims listed at the trial was six, Miss Smith suggested that there could be others, still living in poverty.

“He was motivated by power,” Sgt. Brandon said. “He was a sad, pathetic individual who achieved nothing in his life, but by pretending to be a spy, he had power and control over people.”

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