Life for 'MI5' conman who brainwashed victims

The Guardian, England/September 7, 2005
By Sophie Kirkham

An "egotistical" conman who posed as an MI5 spy during a 10-year web of deceit in which he tricked £1m out of eight victims was yesterday jailed for life.

Robert Hendy-Freegard, 34, a semi-literate former car salesman, brainwashed one man and at least seven women, including a psychologist and a company director, into his world of make-believe about being on the run from IRA terrorists.

As he emptied their accounts, he seduced the women and vowed to marry several of them, but kept them in poverty and violently abused them. One, Maria Hendy, who had two children by him, stayed with him for eight years.

His victims were forced to stay in hiding and were cut off from their families except to plead for money to fund his "James Bond" lifestyle of fast cars, foreign holidays and hand-made suits, while they were forced to hand over their wages and sleep on park benches.

Four of his victims were at Blackfriars crown court yesterday, embracing each other and giving a thumbs up as sentence was passed. Outside the courtroom they spoke of their relief at the sentence, which will see Hendy-Freegard not considered for parole until at least March 2013.

John Atkinson, now an English teacher in Prague, carried out a string of "bizarre missions" convinced that "my country needed me" after meeting Hendy-Freegard in 1993. Believing he was trying to infiltrate an IRA cell, he was under Hendy-Freegard's power until 1997, at one point taking a beating from him to be "toughened up".

Mr Atkinson said outside court: "This is somebody who ruins lives ... He did put me through hell. It was degrading and humiliating.

"I have heard him described as a narcissistic sociopath and that seems to sit pretty well. It is all about himself. He will tell any lie just to get what he wants. I have dealt with what has happened and I have recovered pretty well, I think."

Caroline Cowper, a solicitor and another victim who eventually went to the police in 2002, added: "It was a shame the sentence could not have been longer. He is a danger to society. At least the streets are going to be safer for a while longer."

Sarah Smith, who was under Hendy-Freegard's spell for 10 years and was once persuaded to spend three weeks hiding in a bathroom from terrorist snipers, told Channel Five News: "I am absolutely ecstatic, he got his just deserts."

Case officer Detective Sergeant Bob Brandon said: "He is a fairly sad, pathetic individual, a secondhand car salesman who has achieved nothing in his life. By pretending to be a spy he achieved power and control over people's lives. He was not a spy, he was a sad, cruel individual."

Judge Deva Pillay told Hendy-Freegard: "You are an egotistical and opinionated confidence trickster who has shown not a shred of remorse nor compassion for the degradation and suffering to which your victims were subjected."

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