French case is Puppet Master’s undoing, says writer tracking UK conman

Screenwriter Michael Bronner has been following the case of British conman Robert Hendy-Freegard for over 15 years – and he thinks the game is up for the man now wanted by French police

A photo of Robert Hendy-Freegard in 2005, the year he was sentenced to life in prison in the UK
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The co-writer of a feature film based on the crimes of British conman Robert Hendy-Freegard says he thinks the fraudster could be “screwed” after being caught following an incident in which he drove into French police officers last week.

Hendy-Freegard was arrested in Belgium on Friday (August 2).

Read more: British Netflix conman wanted for attempted murder in France is caught

Michael Bronner is a journalist-turned-screenwriter who co-wrote the 2022 film Rogue Agent that charts the crimes of Hendy-Freegard in the 1990s and early 2000s. He told The Connexion that he was a little surprised when Hendy-Freegard suddenly resurfaced in France last week but thinks this could be his downfall.

Hendy-Freegard is under investigation for attempted deliberate homicide of a person holding public authority following the incident with the police.

Last week, French police attended a house in the small village of Vidaillat (Creuse) to investigate a dog breeding facility run by a woman associated with Hendy-Freegard, Sandra Clifton.

Hendy-Freegard later arrived at the property and when questioned by the police he sped off, hitting three police officers and leaving them with serious injuries, including a broken leg and facial injuries.

Read more: Briton on run from French police linked to Netflix true crime drama

Hendy-Freegard is a notorious fraudster who runs elaborate scams to trick victims into giving him money.

He was sentenced to life in prison in the UK in 2005 for theft, deception and kidnapping-by-fraud, having been accused of extorting £1million from his victims and dubbed ‘The Puppet Master’ by Scotland Yard.

However, he was released in 2009 after the kidnapping sentence was downgraded on appeal.

He is also the subject of a Netflix documentary called The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman

We interviewed Mr Bronner on Friday just hours before Hendy-Freegard’s arrest in Belgium to find out how he first got interested in his case, what he thinks of the conman and how the film came to be made.

How and why did you first start looking into Robert Hendy-Freegard?

I was in London editing the film United 93 [which was released in 2006]. In the middle of the night I read a little newspaper blurb saying that there had been a guy convicted of kidnapping by fraud.

I thought this was either nonsense or a really interesting story just waiting to be told.

I started looking into it and I ended up meeting a lot of Freegard’s victims. I wrote an 11,000-word article that didn’t end up getting published.

I held onto it and it was then picked up by a production company. I was hired to write the screenplay for it and that’s how the movie happened.

What do you think motivates Hendy-Freegard?

He is truly sociopathic.

His victims were not only female, there was also John Atkinson and Simon Young. So it seems to me that he has a hatred of women, he hates wealth and he hates normalcy.

His early scam involved wealthy college students. Those kids were land-rich kids who had none of the worries that Freegard had growing up.

But these scams, this is how he made his living. He got sex from the women, but I think it was mostly about power in the end.

One of the most surprising elements of Hendy-Freegard history is that he is able to con so many people at the same time. What do you think of that?

Yeah, I mean, it's different revenue streams for him. That's what eventually brought him down [prior to his first arrest in 2002]. Once the heat turned up he just was unable to juggle it all.

Were you surprised when you read about Hendy-Freegard turning up in France at the house where Sandra Clifton was and getting into this incident where he drove into several French police officers with his Audi?

Yeah, totally. I mean, I knew about [Sandra Clifton].

Around February, 2019, our movie was announced.

We hadn't shot it yet but the actor James Norton had just come on board as a lead and there was a little article about this somewhere in the film trade press.

We then got a call from this guy, Mark Clifton, who is Sandra’s ex-husband.

He said, ‘I know who Robert Freegard is and my ex-wife has been brainwashed by him and is missing and is in his clutches’.

That sent a chill through us. It was confirmation that he was still out there doing this again.

Our movie, Rogue Agent, finishes with his first arrest.

We couldn’t really go further than that, there was too much to add in. I think that Mark maybe got frustrated by that and went to the documentary company instead, and that’s how the Netflix documentary ended up getting made.

Anyway, on Thursday, 25th August, I had just landed in Boston on a flight from the UK and I got this call from Mark telling me this crazy story about what had happened in France.

It’s strange because in our movie we couldn’t replicate the real-life arrest of Freegard that took place at Heathrow Airport in London because it was too complicated.

So instead we had him holed up in a remote farmhouse with one of his victims and he ends up driving his Audi straight at the police. A few weeks after our film comes out the real Freegard ends up driving his Audi at police officers and hitting them. It’s crazy. Life imitates art.

What will be the consequences of this incident for Hendy-Freegard?

It seems he is pretty screwed.

The fraud is complicated and hard to prove, this dog breeding business appears to be fraudulent but that’s a harder case to bring than attempted murder of a policeman, to which there were many witnesses.

Read more: French mayor raised alarm over British ‘Puppetmaster’ conman in 2018

How true to real life is the film Rogue Agent?

There were so many victims and so many people whose lives were torn apart by this guy.

It all took place over so many years and that’s very hard to compress into a 90-minute film, which is the case with a lot of movies dealing with a real story.

My goal when I started out trying to turn it into a film was to capture an accurate version of the dynamic by which [Hendy-Freegard] would slowly worm his way into someone's consciousness and take control of them.

I wanted to show that the people that he preyed on were not different from anybody else, that all of us have vulnerabilities at one point or another in our lives that make us susceptible to someone who's a really, really good conman.

He was able to be patient and to really see even the smallest vulnerability [in his victims] and slowly and expertly pick it open,” he said.

The FBI agent who was involved in his initial capture…I talked to her quite a bit and she was a very experienced senior agent. She told me that he was the most naturally gifted conman she had ever come across.

The goal of the film was to not make any of the victims feel like we were making fun of them or that they were pathetic but to really show that everyone's vulnerable. That was really my goal in writing the piece.

Are you happy with how the film turned out?

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s done really well and it’s been well reviewed. It is hard when you're so close to it.

Would you consider writing a follow up because the story is not over?

Yeah. We're talking about it. It’s very early to say but we’re talking about it.

Why is Hendy-Freegard such a fascinating figure for everyone?

I've never met him. I did try when he was in prison when I was doing the initial research, but I wasn't able to get to him.

For me, what's fascinating is this concept of kidnapping by fraud. While it may not hold water as a legal concept, it held my interest because of this notion that you can completely enslave or deprive someone of their freedom [without doing it physically].

You can brainwash them and take them away from their family, their friends, their finances…

It can happen to anyone, whether you're the lead attorney for a high-flying financial company or a college student.

To me that was fascinating.

I don't think he's necessarily a fascinating guy to hang out with or be around. I mean, I think he's quite a nasty piece of work at the end of the day, but it's the concept that really interested me – the dynamic that his crimes represented.

Michael Bronner has been following the case of Robert Hendy-Freegard since 2005 and has recently written two articles about the conman and the film Rogue Agent for US publication Air Mail, which you can read here and here.

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