A master conman, who manipulated a series of victims out of hundreds of thousands of pounds over several decades, used to prey on potential victims from the car showroom where he worked in Chiswick.
Robert Hendy-Freegard went from one victim to the next, using different names and identities, spinning fantastical tales, trapping his marks in a web of lies, alienating them from their friends and families, inflicting emotional and financial ruin on them and raking in nearly a million pounds in the process.
The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman, a three-part documentary series just released on Netflix, tells the story of his career as a master conman: how as ‘Robert Freegard’ he made a group of students believe he worked for MI5 and they had to go on the run with him to avoid assassination by the IRA and how, as ‘David Hendy’ he turned another woman against her children to isolate her and control her.
The mini-series unravels the stories through the accounts of some of his victims and their families, and interviews with an FBI officer and retired police officer stationed at Hammersmith, who laid a trap for him and eventually caught him.
In June 2005, Hendy-Freegard was convicted of ten counts of theft, eight of procuring money by deception and two of kidnapping, but two years later, to the dismay of his victims, he was cleared of the kidnap charges on a technicality. His life sentence was revoked but he still served nine years for the other offences. He is now free and thought to be living in France.
In the documentary, a former colleague from the Chiswick showroom tells how he used his good looks and charm to hit on women continually, until he was sacked for it.
Image above: John Atkinson (left), Sarah Smith (centre), Maria Hendy (right) – from The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman, Netflix
Hendy-Freegard posed as an MI5 agent to lure his victims
The conman first struck in Newport, Shropshire, in the early 1990s, where he was working as a barman. He met a wealthy farmer’s son, John Atkinson, and his then girlfriend Sarah Smith, with their housemate Maria. The three were students at an agricultural college.
He told John that he was an MI5 undercover agent who was investigating an IRA cell in the college. Using the political climate at the time to his advantage, Freegard convinced John one of his flatmates was working with the IRA. He persuaded John to tell the girls he had terminal cancer and that they should go on a road trip around England to help him enjoy his last months, to get them away from the college for their own safety.
During the trip, John was told to come clean about his lie and reveal ‘the truth’ about the IRA threat against them. He frightened them into believing their families would be in danger should they contact them, so all communications – unless sanctioned by Freegard – were severed. The three were made to go on ‘missions’ around the country, with Sarah racking up big credit card bills.
Her father realised something was not quite right. He tracked the locations where she had used her card and doggedly phoned anywhere they might have stayed. It took ten years for him to get her back, but his meticulous research helped the police when they eventually took Hendy-Freegard’s crimes seriously.
Both John and Sarah persuaded their parents to part with hundreds of thousands of pounds, believing it was necessary to keep them safe from the IRA. Both say they contemplated suicide when they realised how badly they had been conned.
The money was largely spent on various James Bond style luxuries, including seven BMWs as well as an £80,000 Aston Martin Volante, Rolex watches and Savile Row suits.
The third student of the group, Maria, became his lover and gave birth to two children. He was both physically and emotionally abusive towards her. John returned to his family farm for what he thought was a temporary spell, while he waited for updates from Freegard – updates which eventually ceased. Sarah was imprisoned in one of the ‘safe houses’ where she was locked in the bathroom and left for days without food.
Images above: Renata Kister with her new car, the Chiswick car showroom where Hendy-Freegard worked – from The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman, Netflix
Working in the car salesroom in Chiswick gave him the opportunity to meet women and gain their confidence
In 2000 Hendy-Freegard met a lawyer, Renata Kister, a customer he sold a car to at the dealership in Chiswick. He persuaded her to give him money for a business they would run together and stole £14,000 from her building society account.
They became lovers and went on holidays all over the world. They then became engaged but her family intervened. Speaking in the documentary, Renata said:
“He persuaded me to buy a brand new car. Robert told me that his real job is being a spy. Over three years I have lost about £20,000 to him, which Rob promised to pay back… But he just disappeared.”
One day, Hendy-Freegard rang Renata, claiming he had a friend who needed to stay somewhere safe.
“He managed to persuade me she would be a good help to me, so I agreed for this lady to come and live with me” Renata said. Sarah lived with Renata under the pseudonym Carrie, working as her cleaner.
Soon after, the police contacted Renata who began to co-operate with their investigation into the conman – who, she learned, had recently been arrested. Sarah was reunited with her family.
Image above: artist’s sketch of court room proceedings – from The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman, Netflix
Arrest, conviction and appeal
He entrapped an American child psychologist, Kimberley Adams, with tales of how he was an undercover spy, had infiltrated a criminal network and how he had killed a criminal who had threatened to expose him.
Weeks into their relationship, he proposed but told Dr Adams she would have to be a spy also, resign from her job in Reading and end contact with her family.
In 2002 Scotland Yard and the FBI organised a sting operation. First, the FBI bugged the phone of the Kimberley’s parents. On instructions from the FBI and Scotland Yard, her mother told Hendy-Freegard she would hand over £10,000 but only in person. He met Kim’s mother in Heathrow Airport where police arrested him.
Images above: Jake (left) Sandra (centre) and Sophie Clifton (right), Jake and Sophie Clifton – from The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman, Netflix
Relationship with Sandra Clifton
Hendy-Freegard is now in a relationship with Sandra Clifton and a regular on the pedigree dog-show circuit using the name David Clifton.
The couple met on a dating app in 2012 after Sandra had got divorced. Hendy-Freegard ‘bought’ her a brand new blue Audi, telling her he was working in the media selling advertising space. The car turned out to be financed in her name.
Sandra’s relationship with her children slowly deteriorated over two years, with Hendy-Freegard suggesting Jake, then 16, was gay and repeatedly locking him out the house. After these incidents continued, Jake went to live at his father’s house.
Sophie, Sandra’s daughter, cut off communication with her brother and father after being “brainwashed” by Hendy-Freegard. She says she was coerced into handing over £10,000 in savings to him. Sophie remembers him laughing when he found out about her savings account.
In 2020, Jake tried to stop Hendy-Freegard getting his hands on the house his mother inherited from her parents by putting it into trust. Sandra challenged the attempt, accusing her son of trying to steal from her. The two saw each other for the first time in years in a virtual-court hearing.
Jake explained he merely wanted to preserve the house for her so it wouldn’t fall into Freegard’s hands. Legally, the judge had no choice but to relinquish ownership to Sandra. The house was worth £300,000.
When police contacted Sandra to open her eyes to Hendy-Freegard’s past crimes, she told them she knew who he was and didn’t care. Freegard has strongly denied accusations he is controlling her. Her heartbroken children, supported by their father, cooperated with the documentary series as they want her back in their lives.
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See also: Chiswick masseur convicted of voyeurism
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