On Thursday, August 25, the townspeople of Vidaillat were on high alert, an unusual contingency for the sleepy river-valley village (population 180) in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of central France. They’d received a tip-off 12 hours prior that a dangerous English ex-con may be closing in by road on an overnight drive from Wokingham, a market town in Berkshire, England.
Four local volunteers had been patrolling all night outside a dilapidated farmhouse occupied by a mysterious 49-year-old Englishwoman named Sandra Clifton. The townspeople had been suspicious of her initially. Since her arrival, in 2015, Clifton hadn’t left the house, receiving occasional supplies from an unusual Englishman. A constant cacophony of barking dogs prompted complaints to the government animal-protection agency.
But the locals had gained sympathy for Clifton upon discovering that she was likely living there under duress, brainwashed by the Englishman, who came and went. Once they discerned his full name, an Internet search revealed his alarming backstory. Robert Freegard, who also went by “David Hendy” and “Robert Hendy-Freegard,” had been convicted at the Blackfriars Crown Court in London in 2005 of deception, kidnapping, and theft over the course of a decade while impersonating an M.I.5 agent.
Freegard’s tactics, through which he financed an opulent lifestyle of luxury cars, expensive restaurants, and designer clothes, were further exposed in a new feature film, Rogue Agent, starring James Norton and Gemma Arterton, that I wrote and produced (released on August 12 in IFC theaters and streaming on AMC+), and a documentary, The Puppet Master, released on Netflix earlier this year. I wrote about him in the August 13 edition of AIR MAIL. In September 2005, Freegard had been found guilty of 20 out of 24 charges and sentenced to life in prison.
He served only six years (with pre-trial detention), after the High Court overturned the kidnapping charges on appeal, and Freegard walked free in 2009. According to an attorney who worked on his appeal, Freegard would have been monitored by a parole officer for the next several years to help him “re-integrate into the community.”
On August 22, Sandra’s 26-year-old son, Jake, received an unexpected phone call from his mother, whom he had not seen since she disappeared with Freegard 10 years earlier. In part because of the recent publicity around Freegard, Jake believes, and in part because of increased attention from the townspeople, which panicked her, she had finally mustered the courage to contact him. Sandra told Jake she loved him, and that she was terrified of Freegard.
Jake told her he would come immediately, but only if she explicitly requested his help and agreed to return with him to family and safety in the U.K. It had to be her choice. Four hours into the emotional phone call, she finally asked him to come and collect her. Jake drove nonstop through the night, more than 560 miles, unsure whether she’d go through with it. He arrived in Vidaillat around five a.m. and hugged his mom for the first time since he was 16.
Jake then entered the house. There were dogs—26 of them, all beagles—living in crates in the main room. The barking was “ear piercing,” he told me. The smell was so rancid it burned his throat. There was no heat, no lighting, no plumbing (only a bucket for a toilet), no proper food.
Jake’s phone rang.
“How’s France, Jake?” It was Freegard. He told Jake that if he took his mom away, Freegard would track them down and they would regret it.
“Is that a threat?,” Jake asked.
“You’ll see,” said Freegard.
Just over 12 hours later—the time it takes to drive from Workingham to Vidaillat—Freegard would find his kingfisher-blue Audi A3 surrounded by French police.
I first began trying to understand Freegard’s story more than 15 years ago. Back in 2006, while working on a film in London, I stumbled upon a small newspaper blurb about Freegard, then 34, the first Englishman ever convicted of the novel crime of “kidnapping by fraud,” as opposed to the more traditional “by force.” Intrigued but skeptical, I drove several hours to the Swan, the dusky, old dark-raftered pub in the little Shropshire village of Newport where all the trouble began.
Back in 1992, the Swan hired a charismatic, 21-year-old barman named Robert Freegard. He took up lodgings in the upstairs apartment (the same apartment where King James II “lay” on August 30, 1687, according to a gilded-framed painting over the fireplace) and turned the business around, introducing quiz nights and an extended happy hour to attract relatively wealthy students from the nearby agricultural college (much to the chagrin of some of the locals).
I.R.A. bombs were going off all over Britain, some not far from the Swan. Then the militant nationalist group identified a former student from the agricultural college as one of its battalion commanders. (Posthumously: he had just been gunned down by British S.A.S. commandos while fleeing the scene of a police-station attack.) Sensing opportunity amid this climate of fear, Freegard began hinting to a trio of college students—Sarah Smith, Maria Hendy, and John Atkinson—that he wasn’t really just the barman but rather an undercover M.I.5 officer sent to sniff out I.R.A. recruits at the college.
He played a long game, patiently “recruiting” the good-natured students to help with “surveillance” of Irish students. He taught them “tradecraft,” and to watch their backs. Then in March 1993, suddenly, he told them his cover was blown—and theirs too. He promised to protect them. They piled into a car, Freegard at the wheel, and skipped town, the I.R.A. supposedly on their heels.
None of the students would ever return to college. Smith would be missing for 10 years, over which time Freegard emptied her savings account of £180,000 GBP (more than $300,000) in inherited family funds; she was found only after Freegard’s arrest, living in a fetid bathroom, psychologically captive, much like Sandra Clifton would be nearly 20 years later.
Freegard convinced the students that they were in a police witness-protection program, which they would have to self-fund until the agency’s bureaucracy caught up and could reimburse them. “From when it started, ‘Oh, it was only going to be for four weeks.... Oh, it was only going to be for eight weeks,’” said Atkinson, who spoke to me after he had escaped from Freegard’s hold, four lost years and a failed suicide attempt later. “And then it was only going to be for a year, and then ‘as soon as this happens’ or ‘as soon as that happens’ it was all going to come to an end and I could start my life again. And, of course, as time went on, there was always another obstacle and always another obstacle.” Once Freegard bled the students dry, he forced them into menial jobs and collected their wages.
By 2000, Freegard was working as a luxury-car salesman in West London. But he wasn’t really just a car salesman, he’d tell his new targets: Caroline Cowper, 34, in-house attorney for a major London financial company, and Kimberley Adams, 35, a divorced child psychologist from Minneapolis living in London. He’d romance each of them, purchasing diamond engagement rings and promising them the moon. Instead, his involvement with Cowper and Adams brought him the attention of the FBI and Scotland Yard.
Cowper, despite falling dangerously under Freegard’s influence, began investigating him and later provided valuable evidence to the police. Adams would wind up trapped with Freegard in an 8-by-10-foot motel room in Chambéry, France, not far from the Swiss border, and some 250 miles from Vidaillat. With them in the room were some 20 pairs of men’s designer shoes, suitcases, plastic garbage bags filled with clothes, and a locked suitcase containing passports and other identification, bank records, and mail—for her and for various other women Adams had never heard of. They were broke, and desperate, not yet aware that it was the F.B.I. and Scotland Yard that had shut off Freegard’s access to funds.
With F.B.I. recording equipment spinning in Adams’s mother’s home, in Mesa, Arizona, and Scotland Yard agents on standby, ready to pounce, the American feds, together with Scotland Yard, would eventually lure Freegard into a trap, arresting him in a parking garage at Heathrow Airport in May 2003. The scope of the con then, as tallied by the Crown Prosecution Service, amounted to nearly $2 million in stolen cash and fraudulent bank transfers, possibly four kidnappings, and assault and battery. Freegard was charged with 24 counts, including kidnapping by fraud.
But that was only round one.
“My first impression was that everybody had overlooked the crucial element,” says Tim Owen, Q.C., an English barrister who argued Freegard’s appeal. “The behavior was such that it cried out to be a crime, but the problem is kidnapping requires proof that the person was subjected to a total deprivation of their liberty—in effect imprisoned throughout their ordeal—and the prosecution never proved that case.
“The criminal law acknowledges the concept of free will and does not attempt to protect adults from all the consequences of being deceived,” he adds. “It certainly doesn’t criminalize brainwashing caused by a mixture of fantasy and lies, which is what Hendy-Freegard was really accused of. Such a law could criminalize the Pope for causing Catholics to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or Muslim clerics for encouraging millions of Muslims to go to Mecca every year.”
In 2009, with his kidnapping conviction overturned and the rest of his sentence served, Freegard left prison and slipped off the radar.
The concept of kidnapping by fraud may not have held water legally, but as the people who had once been Freegard’s victims told me their stories, I found it all too credible. I wrote an 11,000-word article about the case, and then a screenplay. If the audience initially fell for his lies before learning the truth, I thought, the story could be both compelling and offer a powerful warning.
When our film was first announced, we got a call from a man named Mark Clifton. His ex-wife, he said, was missing—and he suspected that she was in Freegard’s clutches.
Sandra Clifton—who, by all accounts, was a stable person with friends and a job in the hotel industry—met Robert Freegard in November 2011 on Plenty of Fish, a Canadian dating Web site popular in the U.K. He introduced himself as “David Hendy,” a successful media executive, and moved in with her and her two children, Sophie and Jake. Freegard would drive both children out, and by 2015 he had stashed Sandra at the house in Vidaillat.
“She was a modern-day slave,” Jake said of his mother during a recent call. “She was forced to live in awful conditions, breeding dogs that she never saw the profit for.” Freegard, he said, was charging more than $1,000 a pup, with additional fees for breeding rights and specialty-food packets “that were never actually delivered.” The family estimates that Freegard earned in excess of $300,000 from the breeding business.
On August 25, as Freegard was closing in on Vidaillat, Sandra told Jake that she would not leave until the dogs were safely cared for, and supervised the loading of each one onto the trucks of the government officials who had come to take them away. All the while, Freegard was calling her, working on her, trying to shake her resolve.
He arrived at three p.m., as predicted. Five police officers positioned themselves around the car and informed Freegard that he would have to accompany them to the local police station. That’s when Freegard hit the gas.
Jake told me he saw one of the officers fly onto the hood of Freegard’s car, smack his head against the windshield, and fly over the top; he sustained fractures to his face. A female officer was also injured.
Freegard then swung his car toward Jake.
“He came hurtling towards us, aimed his car at us. We then ran behind [my] car so he couldn’t hit us. He just powered past us.” Veins pumping with adrenaline, Jake chased after the car on foot—in vain.
Freegard’s capture, in 2003 at Heathrow, was too elaborate for us to re-create in our film, so we set it instead at a remote farmhouse where he’d stashed one of his victims. When the police arrive, he hits the gas, driving his blue Audi straight at them. In a staggering case of life imitating art, Freegard had essentially just re-enacted the ending of Rogue Agent.
Sandra Clifton accompanied her son back to England, beginning a long recovery.
But Freegard remains at large—wanted for the attempted murder of a police officer.
To hear Michael Bronner reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Michael Bronner is a journalist and BAFTA-nominated screenwriter. Rogue Agent, which he adapted from his own reporting, is available to stream on Netflix in the U.K. and on Amazon Prime in the U.S.