In my blog last month, I told of jaw-dropping deceptions. My latest book, Bad Girl, features just such a conscience-free liar and I wanted to demonstrate that I wasn’t, entirely, making it up. (Though, obviously, some of it...)
People fall for these enormous lies precisely because they can't believe them. They think, 'No one could
expect to get away with a lie as unlikely, brazen and ridiculous as that. So it must be true.'
This month’s despicable scammer was born Robert Freegard but adopted the posh double-barrelled surname ‘Hendy-Freegard’, as becomes a con-artist. I’m not going to pander to his pretensions, so I shall refer to him as ‘Freegard.’
In 1992, Freegard worked in Newport, Shropshire, as a barman in The Swan.
Three students from a nearby agricultural college were regulars and Freegard befriended them — or, more accurately, identified them as marks. They came from wealthy farming families.
Freegard soon let the boy in on a secret. Freegard wasn’t merely a barman: oh, no. He was an undercover M15 agent. The whole pub was a front for a sting operation to capture an IRA cell operating within the college.
The students had always found Freegard ‘a bit odd.’ That made sense once they thought he was living a double-life. Freegard further sold his story by ‘revealing’ that another student’s recent suicide had actually been an IRA murder.
The student was sucked in. Undercover agents do exist. Why would someone laughably insist that he was one unless it was true?
To help the operation, the student was instructed to behave out of character: to pretend to come out as gay, punch a friend in the face and declare his love for another. According to Freegard, this was a psych-op tactic to ‘destabilise’ members of the IRA cell, causing them to give themselves away. Nothing to do with Freegard’s endless appetite for controlling and humiliating others.
Freegard dangled an exciting future as an agent, persuading the boy to drop out of college and help ‘catch terrorists.’ But, first, he needed toughening up, to prepare him for this new life. To that end, Freegard persuaded him to be blindfolded and beaten (by Freegard) in the pub cellar after hours.
When this palled, Freegard declared that IRA had sussed him! The boy, Freegard and the girls were in terrible danger. They had to disappear immediately. The boy was to tell the girls that he had terminal cancer and his dying wish was for them all to travel around Britain together, ‘to say goodbye.’
It’s common and feared so when you say someone has it, people believe you. Who would lie about it? Most people, told their friend has terminal cancer, are full of sympathy and want to help. They’re so much easier to manipulate then.
Soon after the ‘farewell tour’ began, Freegard revealed that the cancer story was a cover. ‘In fact’ they were being hunted by the IRA. To survive, they had to do exactly what he, the experienced agent, told them.
Psychopaths, as Freegard clearly was, often live wandering lives, partly because they lack emotional ties and partly because their dishonesty means they quickly burn through local good-will. Once few people in a neighbourhood trust them, there's no one to exploit and they move on. Freegard dragged the students from Scotland’s north to England’s south, frequently spending only one night in a place. On occasion, he had fun by making them abandon everything and move on after only a few hours. Again and again he ‘phoned’ his ‘spy-master’ for instructions.
Eventually, in Sheffield, they holed up in a flat which Freegard forbade them to leave, for fear of the IRA. For five months. (And you thought three months' lockdown was hard.) Freegard pressured them to take out loans, beg relatives for money and draw on their savings. One girl emptied her trust fund.
The troupe did visit the boy’s family farm. There Freegard wove a complicated tale. To pay for his son’s
‘training’ and protection from the IRA, while keeping the nationally important sting operation secret, the father had to empty savings accounts and sell the farm. He was promised that grateful
authorities would repay everything, with interest, after the terrorists’ capture. The father handed over hundreds of thousands of pounds. Which Freegard spent on himself.
Later, Freegard allowed his puppets to live separately in cheap digs. They worked at dead-end jobs, giving almost all their earnings to him. By one of the girls, he had two children, keeping them and their mother in miserable, anxious poverty.
While duping the ex-students and keeping them locked into narrow, frightened lives, Freegard enjoyed himself away from them. He spent their money and he also seduced a young woman, ‘Elizabeth,’ who had only been married for six months, spinning the same story of spies and terrorists and convincing her to sever all contact with family and friends because she was in such danger.
Having infatuated her, he said M15 would allow their marriage only if she passed ‘loyalty tests’ involving going without make-up and sanitary towels and spending long periods sleeping on park benches in winter. How Freegard loved to control and humiliate.
She took out loans totalling £14,000, giving the money to Freegard, while he ‘allowed’ her £1 a week to live on.
While Elizabeth was starving and sleepless on park benches, Freegard spent the loan money on himself and told his tales to ‘Leslie’ in Newcastle. He parted her from £16,000 which he said he needed, variously, for his desperately sick mother, to pay off IRA blackmailers, buy himself out of the police and set himself up as a taxi-driver.
Leslie sold her car to fund him and probably felt vindicated when he gave her a new VW Golf — until a finance company threatened to repossess the car unless she paid the £260 a month owed on it. Freegard, now working as a car salesman, had actually ‘sold’ it to her, without telling her, and pocketed the commission.
In 2002, Freegard even conned a child psychologist, Kimberley, the daughter of a wealthy American film-producer. Freegard love-bombed her so effectively that she agreed to marry him after a few weeks.
But that pesky MI5 made difficulties, ordering that they could only be together if she became a spy too. She would have to pay heavily for her spy-training and leave her job and family. But afterwards, they would live in a remote Hebridean lighthouse, romantically spotting Russian subs together.
Kimberley decided she didn’t want to move to the Hebrides. Freegard said all the arrangements had already been made. Breaking them would mean repaying MI5 £80,000. But if she chipped in £20,000, he’d generously cover the rest.
Kimberley phoned her father who, unable to come up with the cash, contacted his ex-wife and her new husband.
About a year before he conned Kimberley, Freegard met a lawyer, Caroline, when she traded in her Merc at the Golf dealership where Freegard was working. Taking a shine to the good-looking, charming salesman, she gave him her number.
A fast romance followed. He proposed marriage, she accepted and was thrilled by the £6000 diamond ring he bought her, unaware that she had paid for it. Freegard had pocketed half of her Merc’s trade-in value.
When she found out, she also heard a lot about MI5, the IRA and how he’d make amends when MI5 paid him the six-figures they owed him. In the meantime, he love-bombed her with expensive gifts and holidays.
Freegard suggested they start a car-leasing business together and persuaded her to provide cash to buy their first vehicle. When no car appeared, he told her the Polish mafia had taken it. (A change from the IRA, at least.)
A year after their engagement, Caroline discovered that Freegard had stolen £14,000 from her bank accounts. One way and another, he’d taken £41,000 from her. Those gifts and holidays he'd showered her with? She unknowingly paid for them all.
But Caroline was made of different stuff from his other marks. She dumped him, took him to the Small Claims Court, won, and made him bankrupt.
Nor did she stop there. She researched Freegard, found his other victims and went to the Police, who uncovered the plot to defraud Kimberley’s father.
British police approached Kimberley and her parents who refused to cooperate, either because of love or fear. But the approach paid off in the end: — Kimberley later contacted police with news of Freegard’s latest tale. It seemed that she’d failed her spy-school exams and MI5 wanted her to pay another £10,000 to re-sit them.
By now the FBI and Scotland Yard were involved. Working with them, Kimberley’s mother told Freegard that she would hand the money over in London, on condition that her daughter was present and she could see for herself that Kimberley was safe.
The mother flew into Heathrow the day before and spent time with Police, being fitted with a recorder and briefed on how to behave. The Police also supplied the money.
The next day, Freegard met the mother at Heathrow, thinking she’d just arrived. He took her to his car, where Kimberley waited. Police moved in, Freegard was arrested and Kimberley rescued.
It’s estimated that Freegard stole a million pounds from various victims, whose self-esteem and trust he destroyed. He was deservedly sentenced to life, but he later appealed against the kidnapping charges, won, and his sentence was reduced to 9 years. He was due to be freed at the end of 2007.
So, you see, the events in my Bad Girl are perfectly believable… Sadly.