Student criss-crossed country on a string of 'secret missions'
Regulars could barely believe their eyes as wealthy farmer's son John Atkinson minced convincingly across the crowded pub.
The agricultural student's bottle-blond hair and loud floral shirt seemed to say everything.
He was "coming out" in dramatic style.
There were more surprises as the weeks passed. He donned a cowboy outfit, tried to kiss a stranger, declared his love for another, sported a "silly haircut", punched a pal in the face and dropped out of college.
Friends wondered whether the pressure of looming finals was proving too much.
But they never saw him being beaten black and blue during blindfolded "toughening up" exercises in the pub cellar.
Neither did they imagine the once-studious and definitely "straight" 22-year-old was actually helping protect the country from the IRA.
At least, that is what Atkinson believed.
In reality he was simply the first of the barman's many victims.
During a decade of "mountainous callousness and deceit", bogus MI5 spy Robert Hendy-Freegard pocketed an estimated £1million.
In a case the Crown said "beggared belief", he wallowed in unashamed luxury bought by the pain, shame and ruined lives of others.
A womaniser, "control freak" and consummate conman, he held a Svengali-like hold over those he welded to his will with an unattractive cocktail of ineffable charm, apparently overpowering sexuality, and a capacity for greed and ruthlessness matched only by his ability to lie.
Many who fell under his spell were left physical, emotional and financial wrecks.
The hapless Mr Atkinson and another agricultural college student spent years "on the run" with him, convinced they were being hunted by IRA assassins.
They cut themselves off from family and friends, handed over every penny they possessed to "buy police protection", and survived in a string of dingy digs. Sarah Smith, "in his thrall" for the entire ten years, was left nearly £200,000 poorer after emptying her trust fund, taking out loans, begging from her parents and scrounging from others.
She once had to wear a bucket over her head while being ferried to a so-called "safe-house", and on other occasions was made to cower in cupboards when her tormentor's "MI5 contacts" called round. She even spent three weeks in a bathroom because he told her to.
However, Mr Atkinson proved the most lucrative catch. Altogether he handed over more than £300,000 - most of it from his father, a "desperately worried" Cumbrian farmer driven into debt to buy "my son's safety".
The student described crisscrossing the country on a string of "secret missions" - once walking 110 miles to a "rendezvous" because he could not afford the train.
The court heard that most of his victims were still struggling to come to terms with their stupidity. Some feared they never would.
Their suffering and shredded self-respect were laid bare during a courtroom marathon of anguished memories.
As they took turns to relive their ordeals - most from behind screens - it was clear that, had it been a film script, Hollywood moguls would have binned it as far-fetched.
Throughout it all, Hendy-Freegard (33) lounged in the dock, a paragon of contemptuous indifference.
His only displays of emotion came with Crown attempts to first "introduce" a picture of him in bed with a man, and then have his father give evidence against him. His uncharacteristic agitation was only matched by his relief when the judge refused both requests.
The trainee-carpenter-turned-barman launched his ten-year "odyssey of deceit" in January 1993 while pulling pints at the Swan pub near Harper Adams Agricultural College, Newport, Shropshire.
Among his regulars were the three students. They had known him for some months.
Although he occasionally seemed a "bit odd", he was friendly enough and even tried to crack the occasional joke.
"Then one day he suddenly told me that there were things going on that I didn't know about," recalled Mr Atkinson, now 34.
"He said he was an undercover agent targeting an IRA cell at the college."
He was also told the landlord was a police colleague and the pub "just a front" to ferret out the bombers.
Playing on the young student's "paranoia", he mentioned an undergraduate's gun-running conviction and suggested another's "suicide" was anything but.
"He said... I was in a position to help them - the police, Scotland Yard, the agencies. He asked me to compile a list of suspicious students. He said if I did this work it would help my job prospects."
That night Mr Atkinson wrote in his diary: "My life may change."
Later Hendy-Freegard asked the student - then "top tier" college material - to "take a break" from his final year so he could help combat the terrorists.
"But I was soft. I had never been in a fight before and he said he would need to toughen me up."
Detailing various "tests" to prove he was MI5 material, Mr Atkinson said: "He told me the reactions of my fellow students might identify IRA members at the college."
There were also after-hours beatings in the cellar.
"I was taught not to react. I just stood there taking it. I was the most stupid person going at the time. He must have laughed himself to sleep.
Then one evening Hendy-Freegard - by now pub landlord - announced the "terrorists" were after him. He said Mr Atkinson and Miss Smith also had to flee because he had befriended them.
The student was ordered to fake terminal cancer to convince her to join them on "one big last holiday". She agreed, never doubting she would soon return.
But, as they toured the country, Miss Smith was told the "real reason" they had left, and that death stalked them.
To begin with they never spent more than a night in the same town. Once they were taken to a rundown flat in Peterborough, but were made to abandon their possessions just hours later because the terrorists were "on to us".
They ended up in a barely furnished flat in Dorothy Road, Sheffield. As other "safe houses" followed, from Aberdeen to Torquay, the bogus spy often pretended to phone his fictional MI5 boss "Burgess".
In most places Mr Atkinson and Miss Smith got part-time jobs and meekly handed over their wages.
Mr Atkinson's 74-year-old father - also John, and a cousin of former top law chief Lord Scarman - recalled Hendy-Freegard's visit to his farm with his son and the other students in tow.
"It was a very strange situation... The defendant seemed to be in charge. When he clicked his fingers they all seemed to jump. He exercised some unnatural control over them.
"But my son was so terrified and his life was in danger. They needed protection from the IRA. So, like any parent, I helped my son."
The money for Sarah Smith's "new identity" also came from the Atkinson family.
"I handed over substantial sums of money on the basis it would go into a police fund to protect them... and be returned with interest when all this was over."
It never was. Then Hendy-Freegard suggested they sell the family farm to "the authorities" for well above the market value, with the excess being used to repay them.
But first they had to fund the transaction to the tune of £60,000. The money was duly handed over.
Fantasy then went into overdrive with the announcement that Miss Smith's father was taking the police to court to discover his daughter's whereabouts.
"According to Rob my family needed representation in court because the police did not want to ruin their operation... so it was up to my family to defend the police, for which they were very grateful.
"It had to be seen that we were paying all the legal costs," said Mr Atkinson
A further £129,400 changed hands.
More thousands were handed over. But Hendy-Freegard's appetite for other people's money was insatiable.
Then, more than three years after it had begun, Mr Atkinson started to suspect he had been used "as a puppet" to strip his parents of their savings.
"I was destroyed. I had let down my parents in a big way. I had no job, no career prospects.
"My self- respect was nonexistent. I spent the next six months crying. I hated myself," he added.
'Every schoolboy's fantasy' was one lie after another.
Having successfully ensnared the two agricultural college students, power-mad Robert Hendy-Freegard began looking for further victims to con.
One of the first was Sheffield jeweller Simon Young.
He, too, was sucked into the conman's world of make believe espionage and derring-do.
But unlike the others he saw through the deceit before losing any cash.
"He was the one who effectively got away," said prosecutor Godfrey Carey QC.
Slotted into the witness line-up after he read about the case and contacted police, he told the jury he first met the fraudster in 1992 when the defendant popped into his shop.
They became friends and socialised on several occasions.
But then Hendy-Freegard disappeared.
When Mr Young saw him again, he had one of them - Sarah Smith - in tow.
He first persuaded the watchmaker to provide a temporary roof over her head before switching to his favourite subject - his "hush, hush" espionage work.
"He tried to enrol me into an organisation and offered me a job as well as certain training. Yes, I was interested in doing government work like this. Of course I was. It was every schoolboy's fantasy.
"Later he sent me on the training - numerous different tasks."
One involved being sent to Manchester to buy a £1.25 can opener from a particular shop. He was given detailed instructions about which buses and trains to take, the doors and escalators to be used, and warned he would be under constant surveillance.
Mr Young thought he had passed with flying colours. Hendy-Freegard said he had failed.
Next he was ordered to buy a copy of the Gay Times and read it openly on the train to London. Sheffield coach station had sold out.
Nevertheless, he still headed for the capital...armed with the can opener.
Following his orders to the letter, he went to a West End pub, approached the barman and asked for a particular person.
After being told told there was no one of that name there, but thinking it was all part of his MI5 evaluation, he desperately tried to figure out what a top spy would do. Then it came to him. Handing the surprised barman the can opener, he said: "Well, when you see him, give him this."
Proud of his quick thinking, he returned to Sheffield and told Hendy-Freegard how he had managed the situation.
Finally he reached the punchline. It proved too much. Even the arch conman could not keep a straight face. Only then did the jeweller begin to suspect it was all a trick.
But to make sure, he demanded a meeting with Hendy-Freegard's bosses.
A rendezvous was arranged but, not surprisingly, Mr Young was the only one there.
"By that time I disbelieved everything he said," he added.
How Caroline was lured by promise of love
Four years ago Caroline Cowper was 34, a successful lawyer, drove a Mercedes and generally enjoyed life.
One summer's day she and her sister decided to splash out on new cars.
Having both set their hearts on VW Golfs, she strolled round to her local dealer - Normands, in Chiswick High Road, west London - to see what was available.
The smiling salesman not only seemed all charm, but was most definitely goodlooking, she decided.
She paid £20,000, traded in her £16,000 car, and gave him her phone number.
It did not take long for Hendy-Freegard to seduce her with promises of love, happiness and marriage - by now a well-tried cocktail of deceit designed to con her out of every penny she had.
She was not only swept off her feet, but so captivated by his bedroom prowess that when asked in a VW customer satisfaction form to describe the salesman's approach she wrote "in bed".
Requested to rate his technique she replied "11 out of 10".
Shortly afterwards he proposed and she accepted. They went shopping for an engagement ring in Hatton Garden, central London.
The diamond-encrusted creation cost £6,500 and she was impressed when Hendy-Freegard paid without batting an eyelid. But that was hardly surprising considering he had secretly pocketed half the trade-in value of her old car.
Blissfully unaware she was just one of several women - including several other "fiancees" - he was sleeping with at the time, she regarded the ring as a glittering expression of his love. Not long afterwards, he borrowed £1,500 from her. To pay her back he offered her a desk of the same value. But he doctored a receipt to add a further £1,700 to its value and made her pay the balance.
Another financial fly in the ointment of romance came when her sister decided she did not want a new car. Miss Cowper asked for a refund. It never came. Then she learnt about the Mercedes money.
Proving love can be frighteningly blind she clung to his repeated promises that she would be refunded in full once he had received a six-figure salary cheque from his MI5 bosses.
Penthouse holidays abroad, including Brazil, followed.
Of course, her money paid for those as well.
He also persuaded her to give him cash for another car which was to kick-start a leasing business she had agreed to run with him.
When the vehicle did not appear and she asked for the money back, he mentioned something about the car being used by the "Polish Mafia".
Then, a year after their 'engagement', she discovered he had secretly plundered her building society account of nearly £14,000.
Furious, she told him it was over. By now £41,000 the poorer, she first took him to the Small Claims Court and won. Then she made him bankrupt.
But she had not finished yet. She turned detective and tracked down Maria Hendy, the mother of Hendy-Freegard's two children, who dumped the conman after discovering his affair with Miss Cowper.
She also learnt he had targeted others, and after "piecing together bits of the jigsaw" finally went to the police.
Eight-year nightmare that saw Elizabeth on the streets
Newlywed Elizabeth Bartholemew was another bedroom conquest.
During her "horrifying eight-year nightmare", she betrayed her husband, risked her health, destroyed her self-respect, and lost £14,500.
It was 1995, she was 22, and her marriage just six months old when she met Hendy-Freegard.
At the time she was a PA cum sales administrator at a Vauxhall dealership in Sheffield.
He was a regular customer and as their friendship grew she would look after his children while he test drove a string of top-of-the range cars.
But he gave her the attention and affection she did not get at home and bought her expensive perfume. Not only that but he "was very good in bed." Then he revealed his "other life as a secret service spy".
He told her she was in danger from IRA terrorists and ordered her to sever contact with family and friends.
On one occasion, he took photographs of her naked and warned if she ever disobeyed him he would show them to her husband, whom she eventually left anyway.
He also forced her to change her name to Richardson, and tell the deed poll officer it was because she had been molested as a child.
She loved him desperately, but was told she would have to undergo various "loyalty tests" to satisfy MI5 she was worth his hand in marriage.
They included becoming a blonde, going without makeup and sanitary towels, sleeping in Heathrow airport for several nights at a time, and living on park benches in Peterborough for weeks during winter. Once he confiscated her jacket, leaving her shivering in just a T-shirt and jeans. After that she spent most days in libraries to keep warm.
Allowed only a pound a week to live on, Miss Richardson often survived on nothing more than a cheap loaf of bread.
"Then there was the time when I was living on a Mars bar a week. I cut them in slices and rationed myself to a piece a day."
Miss Richardson, who once had to pretend to be a Jehovah's Witness, said she was also told MI5 had given them a choice of three towns to settle in. Her mission was to tour each one, visit shops, pubs, doctor's surgeries, and hospitals and then write an extensive report.
Then despite moving to Leeds to escape, getting a new job, and changing her phone number, he tracked her down, warning she could never get away. Later he took her to London where the sadistic tests continued.
On his orders, she took out two loans for him, the first for £6,500, the other for £8,000. Both sums were handed to him at pre-arranged meetings.
Eventually, Miss Richardson was ordered back north.
Park benches and libraries again beckoned. Then, one day, a Good Samaritan spotted her wandering amongst the books and offered her lodgings in Dunton Bassett, Leicestershire. To the police who found her there it was a "hovel". To Miss Richardson it was heaven. She was emaciated and covered with eczema. And when she pulled off her boots for the first time in a month, her feet were covered in bleeding, puss-oozing sores.
A killer story for Leslie
Leslie Gardner succumbed to his advances in a Newcastle nightclub in November 1996 - and spent six years being milked of money.
Although the civil servant, now 37, was the only one not tempted by his talk of marriage, she still lost more than £16,000 to claims of IRA blackmailers, execution threats from bombers released under the Good Friday agreement, and having to buy himself out of the police.
Some of the money was supposed to kick-start a new life as a taxi driver, while one handout was apparently to help his gravely-ill mother.
On one occasion she even sold her car because he needed cash to "buy off some killers".
Later, he presented her with a new VW Golf.
Three months after assuring her it had been paid for, a finance company said unless she started meeting the £260-a-month bills, the car would be repossessed.
She felt she had to agree. In the meantime, Hendy-Freegard happily pocketed his salesman's commission.
Kimberley was told to live in a lighthouse
Hendy Freegard's last victim - American Kimberley Adams, a child psychologist and author, still has nightmares about her ordeal.
The film producer's daughter met him in August, 2002, at the west London VW dealership.
When he discovered she had a stepfather who had recently won more than $20 million (£11 million) on the lottery, he decided he had finally struck gold, and lost no time regaling her with tales of spy missions and IRA terror cells.
After several dates the mother-of-one, whose young son attended school in America, agreed to go on holiday with him to Scotland.
Just weeks into the 14-month relationship came the now-very-familiar marriage proposal. She was 31, in love, and said "yes".
As time passed he began to feed her more details about his life as a spy.
He told her life with him would mean she, too, would have to be a spy.
She barely hesitated, even though it was made clear she would have to resign from her job in Reading and be forbidden contact with her family without permission.
The psychologist was also denied post, and once had to watch as her anti-depressant pills were flushed down the toilet, never suspecting he was simply tightening the mental thumbscrews of control.
The indignities she suffered to feed his ego and lifestyle were starkly portrayed when "Get Well" cards from former colleagues were found amongst Hendy-Freegard's belongings after his arrest.
She said that when he first outlined her new life he explained that once they were married they would live in a Hebridean lighthouse for 25 years, monitoring Russian submarines in the North Sea. At first she agreed, but then began having second thoughts about the lengthy lighthouse vigil.
She told Hendy-Freegard, who said as all the arrangements had been made she would have to repay the state £80,000. But he added that if she provided £20,000 he would fund the balance.
So she phoned her father, John Adams, in Omaha, Nebraska.
He flew over, but was told the money was for his daughter's course at "spy school". Because he did not have the money, he turned to his ex-wife Anne Hodgins, and his daughter's wealthy stepfather in Phoenix, Arizona.
The money was quickly handed over, and ended up funding a luxury 12-week European tour for Hendy-Freegard and his fifth "fiancee".
But by that time another lover, solicitor Miss Caroline Cowper, had become suspicious and complained to the police. Their investigations eventually unearthed Miss Adams' name.
But when local Met officers approached him and her parents, they refused to cooperate. So Scotland Yard and the FBI were contacted.
The Bureau's "special agent" Jaclyn Zappacosta, with 20 years' experience with fraud and other white collar crime, was assigned to help hunt the conman and his latest victim. Case officer Detective Sergeant Bob Brandon briefed her. "He told me a story that was so extraordinary I had no option but to believe it," she recalled.
The breakthrough came when Kimberley Adams rang to say Hendy-Freegard had told her she had failed spy school and needed £10,000 to re-sit exams.
"We worked with Scotland Yard to come up with a plan, to create a scenario," said Ms Zappacosta. "We would provide the money as bait. Kimberley's mother would say she would bring it to London on condition she could see her daughter was safe."
A few days later, in May 2003, she flew into Heathrow and spent the next 24 hours being briefed and fitted with a tape recorder and transmitter.
The next day Hendy-Freegard drove to the airport, thinking she had just arrived, and took her to his car, where Kimberley was waiting.
Hendy- Freegard was promptly arrested and Kimberley rescued.