The mayor of the village in which a convicted British conman who is the subject of a Netflix true crime documentary is believed to have hit police officers with his car last week has said that she had raised the alarm about his activities several years ago.
Last Thursday (August 25), gendarmes arrived at a house and dog breeding facility in the small village of Vidaillat (Creuse) inhabited by Sandra Clifton, whose decision to leave her family and run off with fraudster Robert Hendy-Freegard is a key theme of the Netflix documentary.
The police were joined with animal welfare officers who were charged with seizing the couple’s dogs after receiving an order to close down the business.
A man driving an Audi A3 later arrived at the property and when the French gendarmes asked to see his papers, he sped off, hitting the officers.
It was initially reported that the car collided with two officers, who sustained serious injuries, but it has now emerged that a third gendarme has had to go to hospital because of “injuries which revealed themselves” later, Creuse gendarmerie lieutenant-colonel Dimitri Lehaire has said.
One officer is said to have been carried on the car bonnet for 100 metres, and has been treated for a nose injury.
An investigation has been opened for attempted murder of a public official, which carries a maximum 30-year jail term.
The man is believed to be Robert Hendy-Freegard, 51, a conman who, until his arrest in 2002, had been defrauding people by pretending to be an MI5 agent, and had managed to extort about £1million.
Martine Laporte, the mayor of Vidaillait, told The Connexion today (August 30) that he is still on the run, and she has not heard any news with regards to his potential whereabouts.
She added that the dogs are now being cared for by an animal protection organisation, and that she “does not know” where Ms Clifton is, and believes that “that is better”.
There have been reports that Ms Clifton is helping French police with their inquiries, according to Mail Online.
Concerns dating back years
Ms Laporte has also told France 3 that since 2018-19: “I asked for meetings with the Direction départementale de la cohésion sociale et de la protection des populations over that dog breeding site which, we knew, was not compliant with [legal] standards. Every time I met with a gendarme, I talked about it.
“And despite all that, despite our worry, despite the fact that we said that there was definitely something, no one listened to us.
“They didn’t see the extent of the problem, and I think that is a huge shame. Could we have avoided what happened? I don’t know, but I would have liked to have been listened to before.”
Ms Laporte added that: “I think that [Hendy-Freegard] is someone who could be dangerous, and the population [of Vidaillat] is beginning to really worry. We will try to live with that, and hope that they will find him.”
Ms Laporte said she had known who Hendy-Freegard was, as “he never hid. He always called himself Mr Freegard: we had his surname, his first name, all we had to do was go on the internet to know what he had done before and what convictions he had in England.
“When someone arrives in the commune we don’t start by searching for where they have come from and what they did before, but when things go like they were going, you [start to] worry.
“After several meetings with the gendarmerie, they told me: ‘The lady is not asking for anything, is not complaining, so we cannot intervene’,” but they did agree to investigate the dog breeding facility.
A woman living as a recluse
It is believed that Hendy-Freegard moved to France with Ms Clifton in 2015, and that ever since they have been running the breeding facility with around 30 beagles.
It seemed that Ms Clifton lived hidden away from the other residents of Vidaillat, while Hendy-Freegard was based elsewhere, although he visited the site regularly.
In 2005 Hendy-Freegard had been convicted of kidnap, theft and deception and sentenced to life in prison. However, his term was reduced on appeal and he was released in 2009.
The Netflix documentary – The Puppetmaster: Hunting the Ultimate Conman – uses the nickname given to Hendy-Freegard by Scotland Yard: ‘the Puppetmaster’.
In it, Ms Clifton’s children Jake and Sophie relate how she met Hendy-Freegard – who also went by the name of David – on a dating app, how they believe she fell under his control, and how she eventually disappeared with him in 2014.
Ms Laporte had contacted the authority which works to look after women in difficulty in Creuse, and Ms Clifton’s living conditions had for some time been a source of concern for the inhabitants of Vidaillat, with neighbours saying that she never left her property.
Ms Laporte said that she had tried to visit Ms Clifton at the dog breeding facility several times, “but we got to the gate and it was double-locked.
“On the rare occasions that I tried to get in contact with her, she handed me the phone that she had, which was just for calling the gentleman, and so I had him on the phone, and so it would all be over. I didn’t speak English and he didn’t seem to speak French, so the discussion ended there.
“He was someone who, when we got too close to his wife, returned very quickly to the area. In an hour or an hour and a half, he would be back. So I think to myself that he was not in England or in Lille. I think he was not too far away.
A search of the Vidaillat property last week found several new mobile phones with prepaid SIM cards.
Anyone who thinks they may have seen Hendy-Freegard is encouraged to report the sighting to the gendarmerie.
‘A very convincing liar’
One of Hendy-Freegard’s past victims, Sarah Smith, told France 3 that she was kept under the conman’s control for 10 years.
She met Hendy-Freegard in 1993, when she was a student and he was a barman. He convinced her and her friends that he was actually a British secret agent, working against the IRA.
He made Sarah believe that she was the subject of a terrorist threat, and she abandoned her studies, cut ties with her family and began living in a highly precarious situation, constantly on the move.
It was only when Hendy-Freegard was arrested in England that she was released from his influence.
Ms Smith said: “I hope that [the gendarmes] are not too seriously injured. But that gives a good reason to arrest [Hendy-Freegard]. It is not very easy to prove ‘coercive control’.
“At the time [when I knew him], they tried to catch him for kidnapping, but it was not a good legal reason. Unfortunately, his lawyers succeeded in getting him released because of that.”
Ms Smith added that Hendy-Freegard was so successful at manipulating his victims because “he uses enough of the truth to make you believe the rest”.
“He says true things, as well as threats. He is a very convincing liar.”
Concerned about his daughter, Ms Smith’s father had contacted the British police, and the parents of another American victim had called on the services of the FBI. These reports helped contribute towards Hendy-Freegard’s arrest.
When asked if she believed that Ms Clifton could rebuild her life with her children, Ms Smith said: “I think that it will take her time.
“It took me years to rebuild my life, thanks to the patience and the generosity of my family. If they had not supported me, it would have been very difficult; but they were great.
“If Sandra has the strength to accept help, she will manage to reconstruct her life.”
Ms Laporte also told The Connexion that she believes that Ms Clifton’s “life has definitely been troubled and that she will need lots of help.”
‘He isolates people’
Ms Smith believes that Hendy-Freegard came to France with Ms Clifton for “control”.
“If you are completely isolated, if you do not speak the language, you do not leave the house and you have no one to talk to.
“Normally, if you have doubts about something, you can ask your friends, your family, to get their point of view.
“He isolates people so that they are no longer capable of doing that.”
Ms Smith also said that she believes Hendy-Freegard is dangerous, considering he was willing to run over the police officers.
“If you do not take the threat he poses seriously, you underestimate it."