Shropshire Star

Barman's bizarre and cruel IRA plot hoax turned in new film

The incredible story of an audacious Midlands conman is being made into a film starring James Norton and Gemma Arterton.

Smooth-talking conman Robert Hendy-Freegard

Robert Hendy-Freegard worked as a barman at a pub in a quiet rural market town.

His cunning plans appeared to be far more Johnny English than James Bond in their execution.

Yet somehow Hendy-Freegard managed to not only convince his victims that he was an MI5 agent, he also conned them out of hundreds of thousands of pounds while forcing them to go into hiding for up to a decade.

Now the story of Robert Hendy-Freegard, who was jailed in 2005 for his audacious cons, is being made into a film, with James Norton playing the smooth-talking conman.

James Norton, who starred in the BBC series McMafia, will play con-artist Robert Hendy-Freegard

Filming began on the new drama, Chasing Agent Freegard, in London last month. Gemma Arterton also stars, as the woman who eventually brought about his downfall.

Now 50, Robert Freegard was a 21-year-old barman at The Swan pub in the Shropshire town of Newport, between Telford and Stafford, in 1992, when he began his decade of duplicity.

One shift, he began to befriend three students at the then Harper Adams agricultural college.

Robert Hendy-Freegard, who spent a decade callously commandeering the lives of nine people with James Bond-type tales of shadowy IRA killers and Polish Mafia, had an abusive relationship with student Maria Hendy

He went on to regale Maria Hendy, John Atkinson and Sarah Smith, all in their 20s, with tales about how he was working undercover to investigate an IRA cell operating in the college.

As he took them under his spell, he convinced them they were all at risk from being murdered by the IRA, and arranged for them to live in a series of squalid ‘safe houses’ while he fleeced them out of their life savings.

He persuaded them into handing over at least a million pounds to finance his playboy lifestyle, while also putting them through a series of extraordinary tests to prove their loyalty.

Early on in the scheme, Freegard gave Mr Atkinson a vicious beating in the pub cellar.

Robert Hendy-Freegard was working as a barman at The Swan in Newport when he began his con

The student allowed Freegard to blindfold him and obediently endured the beating to prove his loyalty and show he was ‘hard enough’.

Freegard also instructed Atkinson to carry out a series of bizarre missions which quickly alienated the student from his friends. It was estimated he had conned Mr Atkinson and his wealthy family out of the best part of £400,000.

He persuaded Mr Atkinson to begin a relationship with Miss Smith, bringing her closer into the circle.

John Atkinson even sustained a beating to show his loyalty to Hendy-Freegard

She then dropped out of her degree course at Freegard’s behest and handed over her entire inheritance of £180,000.

Even more extreme was the hold he exerted over Miss Hendy, who he entered into an exploitative relationship with, producing two daughters.

Freegard added her name to his by deed poll, and became known as Hendy-Freegard.

Smooth-talking conman Robert Hendy-Freegard

But while Maria lived in dire poverty, handing over every last penny to finance his ‘operations’, Freegard lived the life of an international playboy, swanning around in fast cars and designer clothes as he travelled the world.

Over time he bought himself seven BMWs, an Aston Martin Volante, Rolex watches and a wardrobe full of Savile Row suits.

Yet despite having no qualifications, and barely holding a regular long-term job since leaving school at 15, Hendy-Freegard managed to manipulate a string of wealthy, educated young people into giving up both their savings and their freedom for him.

Another victim, Elizabeth Richardson, slept on park benches and in airport terminals as she lived on £1 a week by eating bread and Mars bars. He coerced Kimberley Adams, a 37-year-old American child psychologist, to hide in a bathroom for a week.

While his stories seem implausible now, it is worth remembering that Shropshire and the West Midlands was on a state of high alert in the wake of two IRA bombings at the time of the deception. The terror organisation was a major threat, not just in Northern Ireland but on mainland Britain too.

And, years after the Birmingham bombings, our region was still being targeted by the IRA.

In 1989 Ternhill Barracks in Shropshire suffered an explosion, and there was another attack on Shrewsbury Castle in 1992.

Former Harper Adams student Kevin O’Donnell, later discovered to be an IRA gun runner, had recently been shot dead in an ambush.

After telling Hendy, Atkinson and Smith their cover was blown, Freegard persuaded the three to move with him to Sheffield where he took a job as a used car salesman.

He convinced them their lives would be in danger if they shared their movements with anyone else, and told them not to talk to their families as their phones would be tapped.

He warned them that bogus police officers would come looking forward to lure them into a trap.

But despite the hold that Freegard had over his victims, Atkinson confided in his sister that he was on the run from the IRA, sparking immediate suspicion.

In her book about the ordeal, Sarah Smith told how weeks into her relationship with Mr Atkinson, her new boyfriend announced he had liver cancer.

Robert Hendy-Freegard was working as a barman at The Swan in Newport when he began his con

Freegard had persuaded Mr Atkinson to make the claim, and organise a “farewell tour” of Britain for the group during college holidays.

The two couples set off at Easter 1993 for their tour, travelling by rail from one end of the country to the other, staying in the cheapest guest houses they could find.

Days before they were due to return to college, Freegard took them to the beach in Bournemouth and told them they would not be returning.

“There’s a reason I’ve been placed at The Swan,” he told them. “We’ve identified an IRA cell at Harper and it’s my job to root it out. The college is thick with Provos, and John’s been helping me.

“We’re not just here because of John’s illness, but because we need to lie low for a while. Our cover has been blown. Mine and John’s.

“Unfortunately, by being associated with us there are contracts out on your lives as well. Going home won’t be allowed until some arrests have been made. We hope this will happen in the next few weeks.”

In her book, Miss Smith likened the bombshell to standing on a cliff edge.

“I could picture armed men in balaclavas positioned around my home, while Mum busied herself with the church calendar and Dad examined his cauliflower seedlings,” she wrote.

Artist's impression of Robert Hendy-Freegard, 32, standing in the dock at Blackfriars Crown Court

The two couples moved to Sheffield, where Mr Atkinson got a job in a pub, and his girlfriend went to work in a chip shop. Freegard, himself, meanwhile, became a car salesman, using his skills to seduce a number of other well-heeled victims along the way.

One night, before they were sent to separate safe houses, Miss Smith recalled saying to her boyfriend, “Something is not quite right”.

Mr Atkinson simply replied: “This is too insane to be a con.”

Not taken in, though, was Miss Smith’s father Peter, who had decided from the outset that Freegard was a conman. His suspicions were confirmed when he contacted police.

Solicitor Carolyn Couper, who met Freegard when she bought a car from him in 2001, also went to the police after seeing £14,000 had been stolen from her internet bank account, but police still struggled to make the evidence stick.

It was Freegard’s involvement with American child psychologist Kim Adams that finally led to his downfall.

When Freegard discovered Miss Adams’ stepfather was a $20 million lottery winner in August, 2002, he thought he had struck gold. After telling Miss Adams’ bosses that she had terminal cancer, he then told her mother that they needed $15,000 to send her to spy school.

FBI special agent Jaclyn Zappacosta helped trap Hendy-Freegard

But unbeknown to Freegard, Det Sgt Bob Brandon of the Metropolitan Police had contacted an old friend, Special Agent Jaclyn Zappacosta of the FBI.

When Freegard contacted Miss Adams’ mother in the US, he did not realise her phone had been tapped. She agreed to travel to London with $10,000 on condition she could see her daughter - and the police were waiting.

The king of conmen had finally been duped himself.

Hendy-Freegard was arrested in 2003 - and on June 23, 2005, after an eight-month trial, Blackfriars Crown Court convicted him for two counts of kidnapping, 10 of theft and eight of deception. On September 6 that year, he was sentenced to life in prison.

DS Brandon described Hendy-Freegard as the most accomplished liar he had met in his entire career.

Even agent Zappacosta, who had seen some pretty audacious stunts in her time, was left in disbelief by what Freegard had done.

DS Bob Brandon of Scotland Yard, left, speaks while senior crown prosecutor Andrew West and FBI special agent Jaclyn Zappacosta listen

DS Brandon said after the trial: “He ruthlessly deprived his victims of many years of their lives by making them believe their lives were in mortal danger.

“He lived a millionaire lifestyle while they lived in abject poverty.

“He was motivated by power; he was a sad, pathetic individual who achieved nothing from his life, but by pretending to be a spy he had power and control over people.”

But there would be a final twist.

In 2007 Hendy-Freegard successfully appealed to the House of Lords, arguing that his convictions for kidnapping should be quashed as he did not physically prevent them from leaving him.

In what was seen as an important test case for the definition of kidnapping, he managed to get the convictions quashed and the life sentence was revoked.

He served a nine-year sentence for the other offences.