Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries explores the world’s “ultimate conman”, Robert Hendy-Freegard, who deceived his victims by making them think he was an MI5 agent.
The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman examines the investigation of the British fraudster, delving into the shocking story of how he swindled an estimated £1 million out of his victims.
The name of the documentary - The Puppet Master - refers to Hendy-Freegard’s nickname after his crimes were exposed.
But who exactly is he, and where is he now?
Who is Robert Hendy-Freegard?
Hendy-Freegard, was born in Dronfield, Derbyshire in 1971, and worked as a barman in a pub and in a car dealership. His victims were often his customers.
The conman was convicted in 2005 of 10 counts of theft, eight counts of obtaining money by deception and two convictions for kidnap by fraud. He was given two life sentences to run concurrently.
However, in 2009, Hendy-Freegard was released after his life sentences for kidnap were quashed by the Court of Appeal.
Who were his victims?
Hendy-Freegard met his first victims in 1992, at The Swan, a pub in Shropshire.
Introducing himself as ‘Rob’, he befriended John Atkinson, Sarah Smith and Maria Hendy, all of whom were agriculture students of the Harper Adams Agricultural College in Edgmond.
He told Atkinson he was an undercover MI5 agent investigating an IRA cell in the college and recruited him as his eyes and ears of the school, making him undergo a series of tests to prove his loyalty and alienate him from his friends.
Hendy-Freegard later told the group that his cover was blown, and convinced them to escape with him and cut all ties from their families as their lives were now in danger.
The three of them moved to Sheffield with Hendy-Freegard, and gave him their money so he could fund his operations “to protect state security”.
Eventually, they all went their separate ways, but continued giving Hendy-Freegard most of their money.
Sarah ended up ‘going on the run’ from the IRA and was found nearly 10 years later after Hendy-Freegard made her believe she was the target of an IRA assassination.
He later had a relationship with Maria Hendy, and has two daughters with her.
Who were his other victims?
Hendy-Freegard had an affair with Elisabeth Bartholomew nee Richardson, who was 22 at the time. He was a regular customer at a Vauxhall dealership in Sheffield where she worked. They began a relationship and he eventually told her to take out loans to settle her debts.
She said in a BBC article in 2005: "When he was in a good mood he was charming and couldn’t do enough for you.
"But everything had to be precise with him.
"If his shirt was even slightly creased he would take it off and throw a temper tantrum.”
In 2000, Hendy-Freegard met Caroline Cowper, in the car dealership, and helped her change her car, but pocketed the difference.
Later, the two began a relationship. He kept borrowing more money from Cowper, before stealing £14,000 from her building society account.
In 2002, Hendy-Freegard seduced an American child-psychologist and promised to marry her on the condition she would become an agent and cut off her family.
He also convinced a Sheffield jeweller to give Sarah Smith a room for some time and later tried to recruit him into the "organisation".
Other victims include Renata Kister, who recalled in a BBC article just after his sentence: "He was extremely well-mannered, a true gentleman,"
"And he was so funny."
Hendy- told Kister that his bosses had ordered him to watch someone in the Sheffield Volkswagen dealership, and persuaded her to buy a better car, but kept the £10,000 difference he got from the old one. Later, he convinced her to take out a £15,000 loan for him.
Another victim was Leslie Gardner, a civil servant, who gave him more than £16,000 during the six years she knew him after meeting him in a Newcastle nightclub.
Where is Hendy-Freegard now?
Another storyline featured in the documentary is Hendy-freegard’s relationship with Sandra Clifton, whom he began speaking to on a dating site in 2011 under the alias of David Henry. The two started dating and moved in together in 2012.
Clifton’s son and daughter, Sophie and Jake, and her ex-husband Mark, feature in the documentary and allege that Hendy-Freegard is currently coercively controlling Sandra Clifton.
Hendy-Freegard denies these allegations, saying in The Times he was being "publicly castigated".
In a statement, he said: “There is no doubt, like countless others before me and countless others after me, that I have regrets in life.
“There are many things I wish that could have and should have been different, for all of us involved.
“I would also be the first to admit I have made some senseless mistakes in life which I unreservedly and unequivocally offer my most sincerest apologies.
“However... I have sat back and tried hard for so long, for the sake of my children and those involved, to shun the spotlight and let the untruths go by uncorrected.
“It seems there are those who were involved in this that need reminding of a large number of facts and truths that they’ve either forgotten or have chosen to ignore.”
Three-part series The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman is streaming on Netflix now.
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