Since its release on Jan. 18, Netflix’s docuseries The Puppet Master: Hunting A Con Man has proved to be a gripping and tough watch for viewers. The three-part series examines the unbelievable crimes of the infamous British conman, Robert-Hendy-Freegard, who tricked his victims into believing he was an MI5 agent. He is accused of using coercive control spanning decades to con people out of an estimated £1 million. From The Puppet Master’s accounts, the master manipulator is still at large, but who were Robert Freegard-Hendy’s victims?
Documents of the Derbyshire conman’s crimes are reported as early as 1992 when Hendy-Freegard was working in a pub and later in a car dealership, and, as shown in The Puppet Master, many of his victims were his customers.
In 2005, Hendy-Freegard was convicted for theft, eight counts of obtaining money by deception and two convictions for kidnap by fraud, and was given two life sentences. Per The Guardian in 2005, “At least seven of his victims were women, and he got engaged to many of them.” However, four years later Hendy-Freegard charges were quashed by the Court Of Appeal and he was released. As The Puppet Master series reveals, the conman is alleged to have committed more acts of theft and deception following his prison sentence. Now, some of his victims have spoken out. Here’s what we know about their ordeals.
Sarah Smith & John Atkinson
Back in 1993, Hendy-Freegard had convinced three university students, including Sarah Smith, that he was an MI5 agent, and they were being targeted by the IRA. But the story certainly isn’t cut and dry...
At the time, Smith, who is from Kent, was studying at Harper Adams Agricultural College in Shropshire where she shared a house with five other students, including boyfriend John Atkinson. Hendy-Freegard had been working at a nearby pub and had told Atkinson that he was an MI5 agent and convinced the student that he and his friends were in immediate danger. In an extraordinary act of manipulation, the conman “trained” Atkinson to go undercover for several weeks.
Believing he was being instructed by MI5, Atkinson told a series of lies to persuade Smith and her friend Maria to go “on the run”. What ensued was a series of mind games that would see the former students travelling across the country, starved whilst living under new identities in awful conditions, and convincing their parents to pay for their protection. Meanwhile, Hendy-Freegard used the money he fleeced from them, as the Guardian wrote in 2005, “to fund a luxury life of top of the range cars, designer suits, expensive meals and five-star holidays in Brazil and elsewhere.”
“Rob [Freegard] said the IRA were tracking us and we needed to keep moving and go off-grid,” Smith told the The Sun. “The worst thing was not being able to see my family and friends. I knew they would worry because nobody had mobile phones then.”
Now 52, Smith claims she was brainwashed, starved and conned out of her £180,000 inheritance during her horrifying 10-year ordeal. Smith appears in Netflix's The Puppet Master along with her father, Peter Smith, who spent a decade looking for her through his own painstaking investigation. “Even after 20 years, it haunts me at times,” she added. “You hear a piece of music, especially Duran Duran’s Ordinary World - which Rob played on a loop in the car - and you're right back where you were.”
While not featured in the documentary, Maria Hendy’s story is one of the most intriguing, given her relationship to the fraudster. As one of the three university students coerced to go on the run with conman in 1993, Maria Hendy eventually began an eight-year relationship with Hendy-Freegard. The former couple share two daughters. Following Hendy-Freegard’s arrest, it was claimed that “he forced her to live in a cramped flat in Sheffield.”
And per The Guardian, “He controlled her every move as he treated himself to expensive cars, a Rolex watch and handmade suits and shoes.”
Hendy-Freegard was eventually arrested for his crimes in 2005. Per the documentary, he was in a serious relationship with American psychologist Kim Adams at the time. It’s thought the conman started a relationship with Adams because her stepfather had won the lottery. Whilst living together in the UK, Hendy-Freegard told Adams’ parents that he needed money to pay for their daughter's spy exams (yes, really...) which she kept failing.
It was this con job that eventually lead to Hendy-Freegard’s arrest, after Adams’ mother flew to London under the promise of giving him $10,000, so they could finally see their daughter. In a one gripping scene, we watch police seize Hendy-Freegard at Heathrow Airport.
As viewers of the series will be aware, The Puppet Master documentary begins with brother and sister Jake and Sophie Clifton, as they appeal for their mother, Sandra, to return home. The siblings are then faced with a seven-year long battle to find their mother, alongside their father, Mark Clifton.
In November 2011, Sandra Clifton met Freegard under the name “David Hendy” on an online dating website, where Freegard-Hendy claimed to work in the media field and sold ad spaces. However, when Hendy-Freegard moved into Clifton’s home, Sophie and Jake – who are now in their 20s – began to feel alienated, ignored and claimed that David treated them poorly.
By 2014, Clifton and Freegard-Hendy left the home they had been living in, abandoning surmounting bills and debts. The siblings now claim that they haven’t seen their mother in seven years, is being coercively controlled and also allege that she missed the funerals of both her beloved parents. They are concerned about her welfare, as well as desperate to find out where she is.