Robert Freegard — the “Puppet Master,” as he’d soon be dubbed by the British tabloids — hovered in the background while his American fiancée, Kim Adams, pleaded with her father on the telephone. For a few weeks now the couple had been holed up in a hotel in the Alps, using a series of cell phones to call Kim’s parents so that their location couldn’t be traced.
“What kind of money you think you need?” asked John Adams, a traveling salesman based in Sioux City, Iowa.
“I don’t even know,” replied Kim, her voice listless and pained. “I don’t even know.”
For the last year, Kim had been feeding her parents a string of convoluted, though oddly convincing lies about the man she had fallen in love with: that Robert Freegard wasn’t a Volkswagen salesman, but a British government agent; that Kim would soon be joining his line of work, if only she could pass her spy school exams; that they planned to move to a lighthouse off the coast of Scotland where they’d keep tabs on North Sea Russian subs. Kim’s father, Freegard assumed, believed every word. Before the FBI had knocked on his door a few weeks earlier, he had.
Now the Feds, unbeknownst to Freegard, were listening in. Kim’s father milked the charade. “Hey I’m kinda proud of you,” he told his daughter. “I never had a spy in the family.”
“Oh shoosh,” she admonished.
“You look like a spy too,” he teased. “That’s my big fear, that you’ll go someplace — to the mall — and these Russian agents will go, ‘oh, she looks like a spy, let’s get her.’”
“Not to worry,” said Kim
Kim herself was unaware that the authorities were onto Freegard — she had no idea, in fact, that the yarns he’d been spinning for the past 18 months about his covert life as an MI5 agent were a complete fabrication. The lies he’d used to ensnare her were merely one strand in a complex web of deceit he’d used against more than a half dozen victims, and the further the FBI and Scotland Yard probed into his past, the more astonished they became. Freegard’s remarkable spree of manipulation would turn out to be one of the longest running and most twisted con jobs on record.
Driven by an addiction to power and an unquenchable greed, over the preceding decade the grifter had lured his marks with elaborate fictions involving safe houses, faked murders, Polish mobsters, and IRA hit men. He’d pledged to marry seven different women, many of whom were reduced, through fear and humiliation, to near slavery, at times forced to live on the street with almost nothing to eat. Masquerading as a James Bond style agent, Freegard had already scammed nearly $2 million in cash from his victims — money used to finance the fast cars and flashy threads of the blockbuster spy he pretended to be.
And to think, the whole ruse began as nothing more than a lark.
It was the last Friday in January of 1993. At the Swan, a neighborhood pub in the village of Newport, two and a half hours west of London, fresh faces — mostly students from nearby Harper Adams Agricultural College — bustled three deep at the bar. Bartender Rob Freegard, one hand on the taps, easily kept up with the rush.
The high school dropout turned carpenter, turned itinerant barkeep, had been in the area just a few months. Though he was only 21, he carried himself with the confidence of a man 15 years older. He was six feet tall, trim, with dark curly hair, and an impish gleam in his eye. No one could ever quite tell how old he might be. Pub patrons knew him as chatty and charming, a mysterious rake. Young women dropped by to flirt, young men to gab about his passion for watches and expensive sports cars.
That Christmas Freegard began dating the raven-haired daughter of a well-to-do farmer, a fourth-year student named Maria Hendy who lived just up the block from the pub. Among Hendy’s roommates was a 22-year-old named John Atkinson, a sheltered rich kid particularly ripe, thought Freegard, for a good prank.
One night, just before close, Freegard decided to see how far he could go. “Hey John,” he beckoned, as the bar crowd cleared out. “Why don’t you stick around for a bit, I want to talk to you about something.”
Three weeks earlier, one of Atkinson’s best friends — an Irishman — had taken his own life with a shotgun blast to the head. It was the perfect opening for a scenario Freegard cooked up on the spot. He pulled Atkinson into a corner, and spoke in a whisper. “I think there’s something you should know about Garry’s death,” he confided. “Do you really think he killed himself? Garry was murdered.”
Atkinson winced. Seizing on the headlines that morning — an IRA car bomb had exploded outside Harrod’s in London — Freegard explained what really had happened: Young Garry, he said, had stumbled into a terrorist cell on campus — crafting bombs from agricultural chemicals — and over the holidays he’d been silenced for good.
“But how do you know?” Atkinson pleaded. “It couldn’t be true.”
“Do you really think I’m just a barman,” he sneered. “You can’t be that stupid. I’m here working the case.”
Knowing by now that Atkinson had taken the bait, Freegard took him to his apartment above the bar. There were boxes and suitcases, framed pictures propped against walls -- though Freegard had been there a while, he’d never bothered to unpack. “Do you really think I’d live in a hole like this?” he asked. “They give me this stuff to make it look like I live here, but I’m not going to be here very long. Arrests are coming. In the next couple of weeks things are going to happen, and I’ll be out of here.”
Freegard sat Atkinson down and with as much earnestness as he could muster told the scrawny lad that Her Majesty’s Service needed his help. “Take a close look at your friends,” Freegard instructed. “They’re not who they seem.”
On the following Monday Atkinson returned to the pub with a list outlining the suspicious behaviors of his Irish friends. Freegard perused the document with an insider grin. “Interesting,” he offered. “You’re very perceptive.” It was the moment, he decided, to ratchet things up.
Freegard told his undercover apprentice time was running out, that drastic measures were needed to flush out the terrorists hiding among them. He instructed Atkinson to plant some tantalizing tidbit of gossip — that he was gay, say — so that they could follow the rumor to the cell.
“But I’m not gay,” Atkinson protested.
“It will work,” Freegard insisted, explaining that he’d be well compensated from a government fund, and that the task would also help get him used to working undercover. “Your country is counting on you. And you must look the part.”
After a Freegard makeover, Atkinson emerged a few days later with new clothes and dyed ginger hair. He “came out” that night to a few friends at the pub. “I was surprised by how supportive they were,” Atkinson later recalled. Freegard savored the moment.
He might have stopped there, but bloody hell was this fun. Over the next few weeks he did his best to shred what remained of Atkinson’s dignity. He convinced him to skip school and instead take unpaid shifts at the Swan (the money, Freegard said, would come to him later). He took him to the pub basement for toughening up exercises — “you’ve got to learn to take a punch,” he explained, before blindfolding him and hitting him square in the face.
Next, Atkinson needed experience landing a punch of his own. One of his housemates, a major IRA player according to Freegard, would be the ideal mark. Freegard suggested they tart Atkinson up. When he saw his dandyish look, the target would laugh, offering the perfect excuse for retaliation. It was a far-fetched plan, but coming from Freegard it sure sounded convincing. And Atkinson, the bartender knew, was already in this up to his neck.
Laughing out loud this time, Freegard snipped Atkinson’s hair into a close-cropped bowl cut — very Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber — then added noxious cologne and an effeminate flowery shirt. “You look ridiculous,” he said, cracking up. “This is going to work.” And sure enough, it did. Atkinson’s housemate wound up in the hospital with a broken tooth and cracked lip.
By the end of February Freegard knew Atkinson was entirely in his thrall. He’d even helped jumpstart his love life. After the gay farce had blown over, Freegard convinced the timid farm boy to ask out his roommate, another affluent farmer’s kid named Sarah Smith. For the budding con man, it was a power trip unlike any other he’d experienced before – a rush so compelling it fueled a new level of sadism in so much that followed.
Robert Freegard had grown up a loner, traipsing from one small rural town to another with his single mom, an emotionally troubled woman who was often reduced to living on the dole. After his much older half-sister left home to work as a nurse, young Robert became the sole reason his mum got up in the morning. Although the cruel kids at school anointed him a “mama’s boy,” to his mother, he could do no wrong. “She’s invested all these feelings in Freegard,” one forensic psychologist would hypothesize years later on British TV. “He doesn’t actually live up to them. So he probably begins to develop ways of presenting himself in a more positive light — and in the end this runs away with itself.” Indeed, Freegard, for as long as he could remember, had been a prolific and impenetrable liar, able to concoct the cruelest pranks, the most bizarre fabrications, without ever cracking a giveaway smile.
Before meeting Hendy and Atkinson, Freegard had relocated to Newport to chase down an ex-girlfriend — his first. As a kid he’d never been much good with the opposite sex. “We tried to bring him out of his shell,” one childhood friend recalled. “He was very lonely,” remembered another. Easing into adulthood he discovered a fount of self-confidence: reinvention through lies. In 1992, at the age of 20, he met a young woman six years his senior, a schoolteacher named Alison Hopkins. Freegard, who’d left school at 14, claimed to have a high school degree and all sorts of professional prospects. “He was just a smooth talker,” Hopkins said. In an early indication of bad things to come he convinced her to lend him some money, £1,500. He then proceeded to swipe even more with her purloined ATM card. Although he was abusive, Freegard was smitten and then, when he got dumped that summer, entirely crushed. Determined to win Hopkins back he began camping out near her window. She fled to Newport nearly 200 miles away. Freegard soon followed.
Local police picked him up a few months after the breakup when a so-called friend ratted him out. He planned, the would-be accomplice said, to kidnap Hopkins with the help of two other men. By Easter of ’93, though a judge had ordered him to pay back the money he’d stolen, the attempted kidnapping charges still weren’t settled. Freegard decided it was time to skip town.
“Our cover’s been blown,” he announced to Atkinson one afternoon. “Its not safe here anymore. We need to leave… quickly.”
Graduation was just four months away. Freegard said Atkinson would be able to complete his degree in the fall. Right now, however, their lives were in danger and their girlfriends’ lives too. As proof he pointed to a series of incidents — Atkinson’s car had been burgled, Sarah Smith’s windshield smashed with a hammer—and then revealed his relocation plan.
Atkinson, Freegard’s insisted, would tell Smith and Hendy that he was dying of liver cancer and then urge them to come along on a “mystery tour,” one last, no-holds-barred road trip. “It will be great,” he said. “We’ll go everywhere. We won’t sleep in the same place more than two nights.” The girls were shocked by the news, but immediately agreed to the plan. The four of them left town in two cars, Freegard likely blasting Duran Duran, his favorite band. The women had packed for a month. They would be gone far longer than that.
For the next five years Atkinson, Smith, and Hendy would remain under Freegard’s spell. The women had learned Freegard’s “true” identity — Atkinson admitted he wasn’t in fact dying — shortly after hitting the road. As the months passed Freegard’s undercover persona took on a life of its own, more Talented Mr. Ripley than Catch Me If You Can. He told outrageous stories of his years in the field and issued ever more alarming warnings about hit squads now hot on their trail. That an IRA bomb went off in a town they’d visited two days after they left it only bolstered his claims.
Next, Freegard set to work at turning the fear he’d instilled into piles of cash. Though Maria Hendy had become pregnant with his first child a few months after leaving Newport — and with his second a year later — her parents had flat out refused their daughter’s pleas for money. Atkinson and Smith had much better luck. Freegard directed what they should say, standing over their shoulders while they called home. Over the next few years he’d help Atkinson convince his father to hand over some £390,000 — nearly his entire life savings — money that would be used, he said, to help establish a new identity and insure his son’s safety. It would in time, he promised, be repaid in full from a government fund. As further assurance Freegard even sent over a letter signed by his fictional boss, a spymaster named Nigel Carter-Baines.
Smith’s dad — with a Lord in the family, a particularly enticing catch — would deliver nearly £100,000 to Freegard before deciding the man was a fraud. Although Paul Smith knew that his daughter was in sinister hands, when he finally stopped sending money, the calls home slowed to a trickle. Smith didn’t know what to think. The police had been unresponsive. It’s a domestic matter, they said the few times he called. Where was the crime? She’s an adult who went off on her own. And three sets of private investigators had found no trail at all.
“It was like chasing shadows in the night,” he later said.
By 1996, Freegard had decided to start using the money he’d scammed to transform himself into the dapper operative he purported to be. He bought Italian shoes, Rolex watches, custom-made suits, and paid cash for two BMWs from a dealer in Sheffield. More BMWs followed, including a fully loaded silver 328 worth £40,000. The license plate read P1 MAH, for Maria Hendy, under whose name it was financed. He would return often to the same dealer, explaining the high volume orders by claiming to represent a consortium of farmers.
In 1997 Maria Hendy became his common-law wife. Hoping to get his hands on her inheritance he added her last name to his, officially becoming Robert Hendy-Freegard. She lived with their young daughters in a house in Sheffield. He was rarely at home. For the last few years Freegard, always acting he said on orders from on high, had moved Smith, a chatterbox who asked too many questions, from locale to locale (he’d already engineered her breakup with Atkinson). To keep her under control — his bosses, he said, had suggested it — Freegard put her to work in a series of menial jobs. Toiling at a fish and chip shop she subsisted for a time on just scraps from the fryer. The money she earned went straight into his pocket.
Atkinson meanwhile seemed to grow more despondent every day. Fearing he might be suicidal, Freegard allowed him to move back in with his family, though he made sure to point out that even there he was “watched.” When Atkinson’s dad kicked up the pressure to meet with someone in charge, Freegard responded by sending the son on a goose chase across England. The so-called meetings would always be cancelled at the last minute.
Freegard met Atkinson for the last time at a hotel on the highway. Before talking business he made the lad strip to his underwear. “In case you’re bugged,” he said. Freegard had been demanding another £50,000 from Atkinson’s father, who’d been refusing to pay. “I can’t be responsible for what might happen,” said Freegard. “I won’t be able to guarantee your safety.” For the first time in nearly five years with Freegard, John Atkinson stuck to his guns. Freegard let him go, and a few months later stopped calling for money. He’d done what he could. There were new marks to consider.
Freegard had met Lesley Gardner a year earlier, in the fall of ’96, standing in line to get into a nightclub — around the same time he literally charmed the pants off another new girlfriend, newlywed Elizabeth Bartholomew. He worked hard from the start to hook both women into his spy games. With Gardner he tried a new story line, explaining to the civil servant that he did top secret work for British Nuclear Fuels. Initially their fling was short-lived, but Freegard rekindled the romance after tracking her down the following summer. Sporting a close-hewn crew cut, he said he’d been headhunted for a new gig in law enforcement. Though she seemed to buy his tall tales, Gardner was not the vulnerable pushover Freegard had hoped. Still, a seed had been planted.
Elizabeth Bartholomew, on the other hand, was, from the moment they met, a pliable target. Though the car saleswoman was newly married she began an illicit affair. “Not to be crude,” she testified years later in court. “But he was very good in bed.” Freegard told her about his secret life, but kept everything playful and light. His affection, however, quickly wore thin. One day he threatened to send compromising photos to her husband. It was as if a switch had gone off in his head. Freegard now found pleasure in making her life a torment. She changed her job and phone number and for a while managed to evade him.
In 1998 he relocated almost full-time to London. Though he still had Smith on a leash, and Hendy and the kids stashed up in Sheffield, Freegard switched gears. He landed a job selling cars at Normand’s, a Volkswagen dealer on the western fringe of the city. It was the perfect cover — fertile ground for meeting women, their finances and vulnerabilities laid bare.
That spring Freegard phoned Lesley Gardner, who he’d been seeing off and on, asking to borrow some money, a few thousand pounds to buy himself “off the force.” He was going civilian, he said, after a few harrowing months working in Ireland. He’d pay everything back after he set up a new life. Freegard was thrilled when Gardner agreed.
One night the whole crew from the VW showroom went out for drinks. Away from the rest of the group, Freegard tried the usual undercover scenario out on one of his colleagues. It fell totally flat. He wasn’t happy about the nickname he earned after that — instead of MI-5 they called him MFI, the initials of Britain’s largest furniture retailer.
In August of 1999 Freegard contacted Gardner again. His life, he told her, was in terrible danger. As part of the Good Friday Agreement — the British government truce signed the previous summer — IRA terrorists he’d help put in jail were now out on the street and coming to kill him. He asked for a loan of £10,000 to buy his own safety. Gardner sold her car to get him the money. In return he offered a good faith gift from his “special branch” bosses, the keys to a brand new Volkswagen – which, unfortunately for her, was repossessed a few weeks later.
With Hendy largely abandoned at home (and barely able to keep up with the rent) Freegard picked up the pace of luring new women. In the spring of ‘99 an attractive blonde walked into Normand’s prepared to spend a few thousand pounds on a second-hand car. Her name was Renata Kister, a Polish immigrant seven months pregnant. Freegard turned on the charm. The baby’s father, he learned, had recently bailed. Kister was an emotional wreck. Freegard convinced her to buy a new car — “for the baby’s safety,” he stressed — then followed up with a phone call asking her out. Although she was showing, they consummated the relationship. After a while he began stashing his clothes at her house. He said he loved her and even promised they’d marry. Kister believed him when he claimed the car salesman job was merely a cover. “He mentioned MI-5 and Scotland Yard,” she later recalled. “But he never talked about his work too much.”
Around the same time he met Kister, Freegard began wooing another more financially promising VW customer, a middle-aged London lawyer named Caroline Cowper. From the instant she walked into the showroom their rapport was sexually charged. They went out a few times before Freegard convinced her to shell out for two cars. When asked on the customer satisfaction questionnaire how the salesman introduced himself she coyly wrote “in bed,” scoring him 11 out of 10 for “satisfaction.”
By 2001, with Cowper, Kister, Hendy, Smith, Gardner, and Bartholomew all up in the air, the juggling act was becoming too much, even for the highly dexterous Freegard. He managed to scam a few thousand more pounds out of Gardner, always promising that a government payout would return every penny. Freegard decided to cut her loose. “As long as I have a hole in my ass I will sort out the money,” he crudely vowed over the phone in April 2001, the last time they would talk.
Meanwhile, things were getting messy at “home.” After Hendy and the girls were evicted from their Sheffield flat, Freegard sent them to live with his mom. There she’d rifled through his stuff and discovered a card from Caroline Cowper. She also confronted him about an oft-dialed number she’d picked out from his cell bill —Cowper’s, it turned out. “What, are you mad,” Freegard replied. “Those calls are work calls. Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.” Then a few months later Freegard admitted that he was in fact having an affair. He didn’t ask for forgiveness.
By that time Freegard and Cowper were much more than an item — they were engaged. Together they’d picked out a diamond-studded whopper valued at £6,500. Freegard paid cash — money he’d scammed from Cowper. Her rich dad, meanwhile, had threatened to disinherit his daughter if she went ahead with the wedding, and now she was getting cold feet. Were there friends or colleagues, she wondered, who might vouch for his character?
Freegard told Hendy all about Cowper. It was October 1, 2001. They were in the car late at night, on a dark and deserted stretch of road. “You and I are done,” he screamed. “I want you to call this woman and tell her my stories are true.”
“I won’t do it,” said Hendy. “You’re a bad man and a bad father.”
Freegard hit her hard in the face. He’d beaten her before. This time there was blood, and a broken tooth on the floor. “I’m going to kill you,” he threatened, dragging her outside. They stood in the darkness, only their frosty breath between them. Freegard eased her back into the car. He handed her the phone. It was Caroline Cowper on the other end of the line. Hendy was dazed. “I don’t know what’s going on,” was about all she could say. A few weeks later her dad came to collect her. Freegard’s hold was finally broken.
Though Freegard no longer had Hendy or Gardner to consider, by 2002 he’d begun dating yet another woman who’d come into Normand’s — an American child psychologist named Kim Adams — and he’d convinced Bartholomew, who’d split with her husband, to move to London so they could be together for good.
Freegard and Bartholomew had been sleeping together off and on over the years. She’d seen his dark side and had tried to resist him, but Freegard seemed to know just what to say to draw her back in. He promised to marry her, too, though he explained that, because of his work, their lives would be at risk, and she’d need to be cleared by his bosses before they could wed. New identities would follow and a new life together. In London Freegard put her up in a series of cheap hotels and then set about breaking her down. He told her to change her name, from Elizabeth Bartholomew to Elizabeth Hurley. She picked Richardson instead, a name found at random out of the phone book. At the government office to make it official, she claimed the change was needed to forget years of abuse as a child.
Freegard explained to the new Elizabeth Richardson she’d have to cut off ties to her past — to family and friends — and submit to a series of trials developed to insure she’d be a loyal and reliable spouse for a spy. As the tests unfolded it became clear to Freegard that no matter how far he went she’d comply. He instructed the fair-skinned Brit to head to an Indian enclave and hunt down a traditional wedding gown — sari, bangles, the bindi dot for her forehead. While in the shop he called and told her to wait for him fully decked out. He phoned back, directing her to hop a public bus without changing. “I looked so stupid wearing a sari,” Richardson would later recall. “I was blatantly white.”
Although Richardson wasn’t loaded, Freegard convinced her to take out bank loans to help jumpstart their new life, nearly £15,000 in several installments. Assuming she passed muster, he said, they’d settle down in one of three towns. But first, a test: she’d travel to each town, and take stock of doctors, schools, shopping, and potential employers. When she returned with her first report Freegard said she’d failed. After the second he was fuming. He left her in a park in central London.
As punishment for falling short on the loyalty tests, Freegard began leaving Richardson alone for weeks on end. She had no money or friends. He warned her not to do anything stupid because people were watching. Sometimes he’d tell her to wait for him in a train station or on a park bench then not return until many days later. In one instance, sleeping out in the cold, she had so little money for food she sliced a Mars bar into seven pieces so it would last for a week.
While Richardson’s life was being reduced to rubble, Sarah Smith’s was already destroyed. Recently she too had been abandoned in parks with no food or money. On one occasion he forced her to wear a bucket on her head, drove her to a “safe” house, and then deposited her in the bathroom where she slept for three weeks, afraid to come out, believing the other rooms were unsafe. Freegard could see she’d become a shell of the woman he’d first met in Newport almost ten years before. One day he brought her to a new safe house. He said the woman who lived there would give her a job, but that her cover story required that the two never speak to each other. Smith would be playing the role, he explained, of an abused, non-English-speaking Venezuelan wife of a powerful bad guy.
The house belonged to Renata Kister who was fed the same lie. Her relationship with Freegard had been simmering along. At his suggestion she had recently started a new house cleaning business — under the name Kimberly Adams. Smith got down to work and never uttered a word. She even kept up the charade, acting the mute, when Kister reached out by inviting a Spanish-speaking friend over for Sangria and paella. Eventually Freegard admitted to Kister that Smith’s identity had been faked, though he said she was still a woman in peril who needed shelter.
Meanwhile, despite Freegard’s best efforts to keep things going with Cowper, the lawyer would no longer play along. He tried the sympathy angle, telling her at one point that he’d made up the spy stories. “I wanted to impress you,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d marry just a lowly car salesman.” The money he’d bilked from her was probably no help. By 2002 the IRA threat seemed pretty stale. He tried something new, roping her into a complex scheme involving the buying and leasing of cars. When she lost tens of thousands, Freegard claimed mobsters from Poland had ripped them both off. Though Freegard briefly convinced Cowper to give him one more shot, the relationship finally collapsed when she discovered that £14,000 more had been swiped from an account he’d helped her set up. (Later she’d learn that Freegard had sent Richardson in to withdraw the cash).
Kim Adams, meanwhile, was falling in love. Freegard had been a real gentleman during their courtship, and after a few months he’d all but moved in. He described Cowper — who’d been calling her flat — as a deranged and vindictive ex-girlfriend. Adams — a school counselor new to the country — seemed to buy the story, just as she bought the ones about his top-secret work. She was, Freegard, learned, a child of divorce. Recently her mother’s new husband had won a share of a Powerball lottery, a $95 million jackpot split among six friends. Freegard couldn’t believe his good fortune.
A marriage proposal came a few months later, in the summer of 2002 on a beach in Marbella, Spain. The rock was Cartier. Back in London the couple upgraded their rides to his and hers black and blue Audis. The date for a miniscule wedding — just her immediate family — was set for late fall. Before the big day, Freegard explained, his bosses would need to look into her past.
A few weeks before they were to tie the knot the couple were scouting potential wedding sites in Scotland. “Listen,” said Freegard one evening as they sat in the car. “I’ll be going into the office on Monday to look over the background check. I don’t care what they find, I just don’t want any surprises. If there’s anything you need to tell me please just tell me right now.” Adams paused. “What could I possibly have to tell you?” she replied. “Think hard,” he said. “Any letters, any emails, anything incriminating?” Adams volunteered that perhaps there was one tiny thing. She brought up an ex-boyfriend. They’d hooked up once, she said; back when Freegard had just come into the picture. It was no big deal, she continued, but there had been day after emails. The color drained from his face — his inner Jekyll gave way to his Hyde. “This is the ultimate betrayal,” he wailed. “You’ve ruined everything.” Their arguments dragged on for days. Freegard called her a whore. He postponed the wedding. He threatened to kill the ex-boyfriend, said he would “cut off his balls.” Back in London he made her flush down her meds — Prozac, asthma and allergy pills. Though they remained a couple, in the blink of an eye the romance was over.
Freegard began treating Adams the way he’d treated the others. Using her own guilt against her, he made the good doctor — she had a PhD in psychology — feel worthless, like dirt. He watched the depression creep in on her, then stashed her away to live with his mom. He notified her school system employer that Adams had contracted AIDS and was now recovering in a rehab center in France. He never showed her the “get well” cards that arrived.
For months he toyed with her head, promising salvation one minute — a new life monitoring subs, say, on an island off Scotland — the next intimating that perhaps she was better off dead. “You know, I’ve killed before,” he said. “I can do it if I have to.” He told a story about putting a nail gun to the head of someone who once blew his cover. He took her to the top of a cliff and made her peer over the edge. “Were you afraid I was going to push you?” he asked as they walked back to the car. Sometimes he mentioned friends, including a fellow named Pav — “very handy with a knife” — who could take care of her for him.
Though Freegard’s sadistic streak, and the unexplained disappearances of the women he courted, had raised suspicion, so far he had cleverly eluded the grasp of law enforcement. He had no idea his luck was about to run out.
Kim Adams’ London landlord, ex-boyfriend Simon Procter, hadn’t heard from her in months. After discovering her unpaid bills had begun piling up, he returned early from an around-the-world trip. He thought perhaps Freegard had done something to harm her. He reached him by phone and threatened to go to the cops. “Let me know which station you’re planning to call,” said Freegard. “I’ll probably know someone there.” Procter didn’t push it much further.
When Caroline Cowper first learned that Freegard had scammed her, she also took initiative: she called the police. A uniformed officer came to her door to take the report. He saw in her story just a couple’s spat. “It’s a domestic matter, your word against his,” insisted the cop, following that up with a bit of friendly advice. “Change your locks,” he said. “Find someone in your own league and get on with your life.” No investigation resulted.
The situation changed, however, when she lodged a second complaint, after the scam that ended their relationship. In October 2002 London Detective Mark Simpson sat down with Cowper as she outlined a bizarre series of charges. This time, the lawyer had done her homework. She had tracked down Sarah Smith’s dad, who shared what he knew about the three students who had vanished from college nine years earlier. Simpson followed up with his own inquiries. He wasn’t quite sure what sort of man he’d be chasing. Innocently enough he phoned Freegard on his cell phone and asked him to come in for a chat. “Sure thing,” he replied. That phone was soon disconnected.
By February of 2003 Simpson’s investigation had led him to Atkinson, Hendy, and Sarah Smith’s dad. The detective had also found out about Kim Adams. After tracing the license plate on her car — parked outside Freegard’s mom’s home — he’d discovered the American expat had been missing for months. He reached Simon Procter, who said she’d been dating a guy who claimed he was a spy. As Simpson put the pieces together he realized the case was too much to tackle alone. A seasoned fraud investigator named Bob Brandon, from Scotland Yard, was brought on board, and Jackie Zappacosta, an FBI agent assigned to the London embassy, completed the team. They had no idea where Freegard had gone. Using Adams, they decided, would be the best way to find him.
Their initial contact with her family had been decidedly awkward. Freegard had warned her parents that enemy agents masquerading as cops might one day attempt to use them against him. Her father John had been particularly taken in, seduced by the intrigue during a visit to London. By mid spring of 2003, however, both her mom and dad agreed to participate in a sting. They were asked to do whatever they could to lure Freegard to London. He would surely come calling for money. Then the trap would be set.
Eventually, the rage Freegard had unleashed on Kim Adams seemed to blow over. He told her he’d been offered out of the “industry,” as he called it, but that, because of her indiscretion with her ex-boyfriend, he’d have to pay for new identities. He’d already scraped together most of the money, he said, but perhaps her parents could put up the rest? He even showed her the cover of a passport — from Poland — that he said would be hers. His own new identity was already emerging. He’d made up a business card: “Dr Harry Sinclair, answers to infertility and beyond.” Calls to Kim’s parents for more cash soon followed. Her step-dad wired over a chunk, £22,000 -- the last money he would send before the FBI convinced him that it had all been a scam.
By the start of 2003 Freegard and Adams had crossed the Channel for an open-ended road trip through Europe. The call from Simpson had spooked him into checking out for a while.
There were good days and bad as the pair drifted to Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Prague. Though his threats continued, sometimes he’d tell her he loved her. His mood would turn on a dime. At night Freegard and Adams would take turns working the phones, pumping her parents for cash.
After weeks of traveling Adams and Freegard hunkered down in a modest roadside hotel in the Alps. They spent most of their time in the room.
“Hello, Robert, it’s Ann.” Kim’s mom Ann Hodgins had gotten a call through to Freegard. It was May 2003. They’d already worked out a deal for a handover of cash, $10,000. Hodgins insisted she bring it over herself, and that Kim be there to receive it. She’d catch the direct flight from Phoenix to Heathrow. Freegard would be at the airport that Friday to greet her. “Do you get into terminal three or four?” he asked. “Oh,” she replied, “terminal, let’s see um… terminal four.”
“Right,” said Freegard. “That’s the best one.” They would rendezvous, he explained, at the Starbuck’s in the corner near the WH Smith’s. “We’ll be there,” he continued. “One of us to get you.”
Freegard and Adams packed a few small things — after the handover they’d be returning to their Alpine hotel room — and drove across France, then through the Chunnel to England. They slept near the airport, arriving at Heathrow with plenty of time. Kim stayed in the car in the covered garage. As Freegard waited for the flight to arrive, he practiced rudimentary counter-surveillance, peering over his shoulder through window reflections. He never noticed the stern-faced men, their eyes trained upon him.
Hodgins came through the gate. They embraced. She popped into the bathroom, then the two of them made their way upstairs towards the car. In the garage Kim hugged her mom. “Alright, ready to go?” asked Freegard. Hodgins seemed jittery, like she was looking for someone. She asked for her coat. Freegard pulled her suitcase out of the trunk. She rifled, slowly, finally fishing it out. She reached for the car door.
A blur of vehicles came screeching round corners from every direction. A man reached for Freegard. “Robert Hendy Freegard,” he said. “You are under arrest.”
“I love you Kim,” he yelled, again and again, as the police dragged him away.
A full month would pass before authorities discovered Sarah Smith, still working for Kister. They knocked on the door of a house she was cleaning, and her nightmare was over. Richardson — whose identity was revealed from papers uncovered in Freegard’s briefcase in France — would not be found until that fall, living in a hovel covered in sores.
Freegard’s trial lasted more than two years. His defense, through four sets of lawyers — three would resign from the case claiming to be “professionally embarrassed” — was that he’d been the dupe. He constructed a fanciful saga, turning a decade of lies back on his victims. “In 25 years as a detective I have never come across such an accomplished liar,” Bob Brandon commented after the trial. “I don’t think he’d know the truth if it jumped up and bit him on the backside.” It was Atkinson, Freegard claimed, who’d been the real con man, an HIV positive sex fiend who’d lured him out on that fateful first trip. The IRA story, he said, had been the farm boy’s creation. Hendy, said Freegard, was financially reckless. Richardson was a skilled liar who’d pursued him for sex. Adams, meanwhile, “had slept with four different men.” “It affected me badly,” he said on the stand. His charms, alas, didn’t work on the jury. Last September Robert Hendy-Freegard was found guilty of theft and “kidnapping by fraud,” a statute unique to Britain that was successfully pursued, in this case, for the very first time. On September 6th, he received a life term in prison.
Elizabeth Richardson, the most thoroughly abused of his victims, took only small comfort in Freegard’s sentence. “[It] sill doesn’t feel right,” she said, her face shrouded, on British TV. “He’s got a roof over his head, he’s got meals, he’s got clean clothes… He’s still got a better quality of life than I ever lived. I won’t be happy until he’s dead.”
Caroline Cowper, meanwhile, remains far more conflicted about the man she fell in love with and ultimately helped land in jail. “It’s like a sickness, he’s still to some extent in my head,” she said months after the trial. “If you said to me, ‘Caroline, I’m going to order you a cab and I’m going to take you down to Wandsworth Prison, and he’ll see you.’ I’d go. Isn’t that awful? That is so awful.”