What would you do when you come to know that a person is committing heinous crimes, and while you are talking about it, it is still happening out there, but you cannot do anything to stop it or put the accused behind bars. How helpless and agonizing would it feel? ‘The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman’ is such a story that you wouldn’t have believed to be true if it wouldn’t have happened in reality. Some said he was a sociopath. Some said he was a conniving mastermind who planned each and every move. He lived in the shadows and his name was Robert Hendy-Freegard. What he was exceptional at doing was creating his own fictional narrative with so much conviction that there was not even an iota of doubt in anybody’s mind. The people, or I must say, the victims who came into his contact, knew that once they were in, there was no way out.
‘The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman’ has been directed by Sam Bensted and Gareth Johnson, and it is documentation of one of the most unusual cases that you will ever come across.
‘The Puppet Master’ Plot Summary – The Story of Sarah Smith
It was the early 90s, and the socio-political atmosphere in the U.K. was not very peaceful. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) had declared war on the U.K. Some students at Harper Adams Agricultural College were found to be involved with the IRA and aiding their agenda. It was an environment that was smeared in fear. Everybody was looked upon with an eye of suspicion.
John Atkinson was a student at the Agricultural College and used to visit a bar nearby. One day, he indulged in a conversation with the bartender. It was nothing like what he had expected. The bartender was named Rob, and he told him that he was an MI5 agent. Rob asked John to become a part of MI5 and help them expose one existing cell of the IRA that was operating in the shadows. John Atkinson could not see the fabrication because Rob was convincing enough, and the environment was such that nothing seemed absurd or concocted. Rob instilled a fear inside John and told him that they must leave the place immediately because there was an imminent threat to their lives. He was told to convince his friends, Sarah Smith and Maria, without disclosing to them that it was an MI5 mission. John Atkinson told Sarah that he was terminally ill and just had a couple of months left. He persuaded both the girls to come with him on a trip.
Rob, the bartender, was actually Robert Freegard, who had used the lurking fear and the socio-political unrest in the country to his advantage. Little did Sarah know what she was signing into. Sarah’s father, Peter Smith, recounts the horrors he had to face and the kind of helplessness he had to feel at that time. Robert, a.k.a Rob, used to make Sarah call her father and ask for money. John Atkinson’s family also paid a huge amount, as Robert Freegard had convinced him that money was needed by MI5 in order to protect their lives. Rob was able to escape the clutches of the conman somehow, but it took a long time before Sarah could do it.
Sarah couldn’t explain why she wasn’t able to leave Robert, as it was clear she was being mentally abused. She was once confined in a washroom, and using his influence, Robert asked her to have sexual relations with her. Years later, Sarah knew that it was more than just physical confinement. It was something much bigger.
The History Repeats With Sandra Clifton
Years later, we meet the siblings, Sophie and Jake Clifton. Their mother, Sandra, had just gone through a divorce. She was on multiple dating sites. On one such site, she found a guy named David. Sandra and her kids started hanging out with David. They went on a road trip where David acted really strangely. He did not show his passport, nor did he reveal his full name. Eventually, Sophie and Jake realized that something was not right. Though he told them that he worked in advertising and had a lot to do, he hung around the whole day at their place. He used to boast about the kind of money he had and what all he could buy Sandra. Jake moved out first and went to live with his father, Mark Clifton. Sophie was stuck for a while, but soon realized that she had become an incessantly dependent individual who, for some reason, was making all the wrong decisions and felt that there was no way out.
Why Did the Plan To Capture The Puppet Master Fail?
Bob Brandon, who worked at Scotland Yard, had been looking for this conman named Robert Freegard for quite some time now, in a matter where Robert had fraudulently taken thirty thousand dollars from his ex-wife, Hammerschmidt. Through his leads, Bob soon realized that it was not just a petty case, and its scale was much larger. He came across an American woman named Kim Adams, who was missing and supposedly living with Robert. Jaclyn Zappacosta, a special agent from the FBI, was looped in. Communication was established between Kim’s parents in Phoenix, Arizona. It was revealed that Kim’s father had just won the lottery, and that was the probable reason why Robert was after Kim. Robert was constantly coercing Kim’s parents to pay the fees for a spy school, which apparently Kim wanted to go to. He had fabricated a story that she had failed her exams twice, and somehow he had convinced the school by giving them half the amount they were asking for, but the application would be successful only when the other half was paid.
Together with Scotland Yard, the FBI made a plan to capture Robert. They asked him to meet Kim’s mother at Heathrow airport, where she would give him the money. He took the bait and was captured at the airport itself. The court gave him life imprisonment, and everybody rejoiced as it felt like an accomplishment. But soon, Robert appealed to an appellate authority, which reversed the decision given by the lower court. The court could not establish any mens-rea behind the acts and freed Robert Freegard. In the court of law, it couldn’t be proved that Robert had committed any offense. The efforts that Bob Brandon had taken to capture him had gone in vain, as now the con-man was allowed to move around freely.
Years later, Robert Freegard made contact with the Clifton family and repeated the same pattern all over again with Sandra.
How Did The Puppet Master Pull His Strings?
How was it that a man committed such offenses and still got away with them? There was a simple reason for it. He never kidnapped anyone with force. He persuaded them, created false situations, and used his influence and charm to coerce the individuals to be with him subconsciously. A third person would believe that the victim could have escaped considering they were not chained or confined physically. But the ones who suffered and were there to witness it knew that there was no way out.
Robert alienated his victims. They became dependent upon him. They were made to feel that there was no other option other than what Freegard was proposing. The victims were ready to go against their families, their loved ones, just to adhere to what Robert was saying. Imagine John Atkinson forcing his family to give huge sums of money because MI5 needed it to protect them.
Sandra started suspecting foul play on the part of her own kids. Sarah was living as a house helper when the police discovered her. I mean, she could have easily escaped when Robert was not there to keep an eye on her. But she didn’t. She obeyed him because she could not even visualize an alternative as the influence made her feel captivated. Somewhere, all the victims were brainwashed into believing that they had to do what was told to them.
I don’t know if Robert Freegard had planned or schemed it to be this way, but one thing is for sure, whatever he did, it was pretty effective, and the most baffling aspect was that he could not be accused of committing any crime.
‘The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman,’ streaming on Netflix, makes you wonder that there were lacunae in our legal system that a conman could not be proved guilty and still roams free and claims that the story told by Cliffton’s is untrue.