Netflix’s latest three-part true crime documentary The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman tells the extraordinary story of Robert Hendy-Freegard, a 51-year-old British man who posed as an MI5 secret agent in order to control and manipulate his victims.
The programme is centred around Jake and Sophie Clifton, whose mother Sandra met Hendy-Freegard in 2014 on a dating site and has since disappeared with him.
“It doesn’t matter what we’ve been through, we still love you and we want you back in our lives,” Jake Clifton says in Puppet Master, addressing his missing mother directly in the hope she will see the series and make contact.
The man at the heart of the story was born Robert Freegard on 1 March 1971 in Dronfield, Derbyshire.
Originally a car salesman, he began working in bars and eventually took a job at The Swan pub in Newport, Shropshire, where he would befriend the regulars and regale them with tall tales.
It was here in 1993 that he first met John Atkinson, a student at the local Harper Adams Agricultural College in Edgmond, and convinced him that he was in fact an undercover agent working for MI5 tasked with monitoring the prestigious school for potential connections to the IRA.
Not so improbable a claim as it might sound, the threat of IRA terror in Britain was an ongoing scare in the 1990s and the college was thought to be a likely infiltration point given the quantities of potential bomb-making ingredients like fertilisers and diesel fuel it housed.
Having persuaded Atkinson of his spy story, Freegard moved to “recruit” him to his cause as an informer on his classmates, also subjecting him to “loyalty tests” and “fight training”, including how to take a punch.
The fantasy escalated when Freegard persuaded Atkinson that their cover had been blown and the duo persuaded two young women, Sarah Smith and Maria Hendy, to join them on the run, Atkinson lying to them that he was suffering from cancer and wanted them to join him on a “bucket list” tour of Britain.
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Over the next decade, the quartet moved around frequently from one “safe house” to another – beginning with a flat in Sheffield – to evade the non-existent threat of detection by IRA gunmen.
Smith was persuaded to cut and dye her hair and give up her entire £300,000 inheritance from her family, while Atkinson handed over almost £400,000 to Freegard for “witness protection”.
Hendy meanwhile began a relationship with the conman, with whom she had two children, which lasted for nine years and saw him add her surname to his.
By 2002, Atkinson had had enough, abandoning his fears of phantom IRA men and returning home to his family, thereafter contacting police and writing to Sarah Smith’s father Peter about what had gone on, the latter subsequently setting private investigators on her trai in frustration at police inaction.
“I’d just lost a fortune, and put my family through hell,” he says in the Netflix series.
“I’d dragged two innocent girls from college into a web of lies, and the self-loathing was immense. I wanted to die. I didn’t want to exist.”
Robert Hendy-Freegard (Netflix)
Bob Brandon, a member of Scotland Yard’s Fraud Squad, was also on Hendy-Freegard’s trail in relation to another case of a woman he had defrauded of £30,000 after promising to marry her during one of his periodic departures from the “safe houses” he shared with Atkinson, Smith and Hendy, which he otherwise spent touring Europe and spending their money lavishly.
It was on one such trip that the Hendy-Freegard met American child psychologist Kim Adams, who had lived in the UK before vanishing with him, the swindler again promising marriage, falsely telling her friends that she was dying and wanted to tour the world while she still could, just as Atkinson had done.
Because Adams was a US citizen, the FBI was pursuing her disappearance and soon teamed up with the Metropolitan Police to track down the pair, finally entrapping Hendy-Freegard at Heathrow Airport by arranging a sting in which Adams’ mother agreed to fly in and meet him to pass on some money to her daughter.
Following his arrest, police searched a French hotel room rented by the suspect that was found to contain dozens of passports, credit cards and bills belonging to other women, all apparent victims of his deceptions.
Brandon would subsequently say that he had never met “such an accomplished liar” in 25 years as a detective.
Hendy-Freegard was duly put on trial at Blackfriars Crown Court in June 2005 on two counts of kidnapping, 10 of theft and eight of deception, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on 6 September, his attempt to pin the whole MI5 story on Atkinson failing to convince.
However, his lawyers appealed his conviction in April 2007 on the grounds that his victims were not kidnapped but instead went along with his fanciful narratives of their own volition. He was freed in May 2009.
Sarah Smith (Netflix)
Three years later, separated mother-of-two Sandra Clifton, 41, met a man calling himself “David Hendy”, who claimed to have a busy career in media, via a dating app and began seeing him regularly.
“David” quickly began exhibiting controlling behaviour and working to alienate and defraud Clifton’s children, ultimately forcing them to move out of the family home.
Sandra and “David” in turn disappeared in 2014, before she was found and questioned by police in 2015, whereupon she told officers that she knew her lover was really Robert Hendy-Freegard and said she planned to stay with him, declining to return to her children, who now hope the Netflix series might influence her to come back to them.
The Times recently tracked down Hendy-Freegard– who has most recently been spotted entering pedigree beagles into Crufts, where he boasted of wearing Savile Row suits and owning a Rolex watch – prompting him to complain from a residence in Berkshire that he had been “publicly castigated” for “such a long time” over his past.
“There is no doubt like countless others before me and countless others after me that I have regrets in life, some profoundly deep regrets at that,” he told the newspaper.
“There are many things I do so, so wish could have and should have been very different, indeed for all of us involved within it. I would also be the very first to admit that I have made some senseless mistakes in life of which I do unreservedly and unequivocally offer my most sincerest apologies.
“However, and it’s a monumental however, actually, I have sat back and tried very hard for so long for the sake of primarily my children and those involved to shun the spotlight and let the untruths go by uncorrected. It seems that there are those who were involved in this sorry episode that must obviously need reminding of a large number of facts and truths that they’ve either forgotten or have chosen to ignore.”
The first leg of Hendy-Freegard’s remarkable story was previously told in the Channel 5 documentary The Spy Who Stole My Life (2005), and a feature film biopic starring James Norton and Gemma Arterton is currently in the works.