The victims of "evil" conman Robert Hendy-Freegard were celebrating yesterday after the bogus MI5 spy was jailed for life for an extraordinary £1 million "odyssey of deceit".

The 34-year-old ex-car salesman, nicknamed "The Puppetmaster", callously commandeered the lives of a string of unsuspecting men and women - including students from a Midland college - during a decade-long charade, unprecedented in its audacity and scope.

With a cocktail of "devious charm" and James Bond-type tales of shadowy IRA killers, he turned most of his victims into virtual slaves, conning them out of hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund a lavish millionaire lifestyle.

By contrast they suffered abject poverty, were forced to carry out bizarre "missions", and were left trembling in terror from his explosive temper and claims that assassins were stalking their every move.

At least two contemplated suicide.

Hendy-Freegard's elaborate web of lies finally unravelled yesterday when he was sentenced at Blackfriars Crown Court to life imprisonment.

After a case described in court as "unique" in the annals of legal history, some of the conman's victims spoke publicly for the first time about their appalling ordeal.

His longest suffering victim, Sarah Smith, one of those who thought about taking her own life, said she was "absolutely ecstatic" at the sentence.

Former student David Atkinson, who handed over £300,000 to the arch swindler, said he felt " completely vindicated".

And solicitor Caroline Cowper, who first alerted police to the giant con, said a "danger to society" had been taken off the streets.

Miss Smith and Mr Atkinson, who first fell prey to Hendy-Freegard when both were students at the Harper Adams Agricultural College, near Newport, Shropshire, turned to each other and gripped hands in court as the life sentence was passed.

But their tormentor, immaculately dressed in a dark blue suit, white shirt and blue patterned tie, showed not a flicker of emotion.

Instead, he wore his trademark look of impassivity and listened to proceedings as if he was nothing more than a vaguely interested bystander.

Describing him as an " egotistical confidence trickster", Judge Deva Pillay told Hendy-Freegard he had been convicted of "the most heinous patterns of offending".

He said: "In my judgment the several verdicts of the jury in this case represent a vindication of your victims and a telling testament to their courage, tenacity and spirit to survive and overcome adversity, despite the depths of despair to which they were driven by you."

Hendy-Freegard, of High Street, Blyth, Nottinghamshire, was convicted after an earlier eight-month trial of 20 offences of theft, deception and " kidnapping by fraud" between 1993 and 2003.

He was told it would be March 2013 before parole was even considered.

Outside court, case officer Detective Sergeant Bob Brandon said Hendy-Freegard had brainwashed his victims to feed his twisted craving for power.

"He is a fairly sad pathetic individual, a second-hand car salesman who has achieved nothing in his life," he said.

"By pretending to be a spy, he achieved power and control over people's lives. He was not a spy, he was a sad, cruel individual."

Det Sgt Brandon said the presence of some of his victims in the courtroom was the only thing that had caused Hendy-Freegard to show any flicker of emotion. "When he looked across and saw them, he looked devastated by that," he said.

Mr Atkinson described the "sick" conman as a narcissistic sociopath; someone who had self- serving fantasies of grandiosity.

"This is somebody who ruins lives, he ruined my life and ruined many other people's lives," he said.

"He put me through hell. It was degrading and humiliating."

Miss Cowper, who once rated his bedroom techniques "11 out of 10", added: "It was a shame the sentence could not have been longer. He is a danger to society. At least the streets are going to be safer for a while longer."

The jury heard how the relentless womaniser launched his life of crime in earnest while a barman at Newport's Swan public house.

Among his victims were Mr Atkinson, Miss Smith and Maria Hendy, who later became his common-law wife and mother of his two daughters - all of them students at the nearby Harper Adams college.

The first, who parted with £300,000 to pay for so-called "police protection", was the conman's most lucrative catch.

He was so convinced by the defendant's tales of undercover work and IRA terrorists that he allowed himself to be repeatedly beaten during a string of "tests" to prove he was a worthy assistant.

After he used his "unusual powers of persuasion" to convince him and Miss Smith they were in danger from republican death squads, they turned their backs on their lives and their families at the start of an ordeal that was to destroy their dignity and endanger their sanity. Both would later contemplate suicide.

Mr Atkinson, now an English teacher in Prague, told how he carried out a string of "bizarre missions" for Hendy-Freegard, convinced that "my country needed me".

Miss Smith, who gave the swindler more than £200,000, recalled once being ferried to a so-called "safe house" with a bucket over her head and once spending three weeks in a locked bathroom with little to eat, convinced she would end up in a sniper's sights if she dare leave.

Among his other victims was Miss Cowper. Seduced with promises of love, happiness and marriage, she was showered with a glittering diamond engagement ring and luxury holidays abroad, little suspecting he had plundered her bank account to pay for it all.

The last to fall into his clutches was American child psychologist Dr Kimberley Adams, targeted because her stepfather was a 25 million dollar-lottery winner.

Head over heels in love, she abandoned her old life convinced that once they were married, they would live in a Hebridean lighthouse for 25 years monitoring Russian submarines in the North Sea.

By then, Miss Cowper had alerted police and when Hendy-Freegard realised they were on to him, he fled to Europe with Dr Adams. He was caught just over two years ago in a carefully-laid trap at Heathrow Airport, Scotland Yard and the FBI having teamed up to snare him.

A documentary about the case, The Spy Who Stole My Life, will be screened tonight on Five.