When Sandra Clifton moved into the tiny French hamlet she now calls home, her close-knit Gallic neighbours instinctively felt there was something amiss about the British expat.
For a start, there was the fact the 49-year-old was living alone in the middle of nowhere, with no car and no identity papers. And aside from a very occasional visit from a dark-haired man, no friends or family members ever came to visit her ramshackle semi-detached house.
When they tried to speak to her, to welcome her to the community and to offer their assistance, the frightened-looking ‘Anglaise’ simply grabbed her mobile phone and called the same mysterious man, asking him what she should do and what she should say.
That was before one of the villagers sat down to watch a new Netflix documentary, The Puppet Master: Hunting The Ultimate Conman, about a missing British woman who had fallen prey to a prolific criminal trickster who posed as a secret agent on the run from the IRA.
A photograph of Sandra flashed up on the screen and the puzzle was solved. Or was it? For, as the Mail discovered this week after tracking Sandra down to one of the least populated areas of France, the mystery about the mother-of-two’s disturbing relationship with Britain’s most notorious fraudster, Robert Hendy-Freegard, is far from over.
Why did the once devoted mother from Wokingham, Berkshire, cut herself off from her two adult children and seemingly disappear without trace two years after Hendy-Freegard came into her life in 2012?
And what is the nature of her ongoing relationship with the 51-year-old, who was jailed in 2005 for ‘kidnap by fraud’, theft and obtaining money by deception, after duping seven intelligent women and one man; cutting them off from their friends and relatives and, in some cases, fleecing them to the tune of £1 million.
This week, the Mail found Sandra walking her dogs on a country lane near her French hideaway. Casually dressed in a navy fleece, black hat and yellow wellies, this, finally, is the missing woman whose photograph has been beamed into millions of homes since the hit Netflix documentary about Hendy-Freegard and the woman believed to be his latest ‘victim’ first aired in January.
A nervous-looking Sandra insisted she was aware of Hendy-Freegard’s criminal past ‘from the beginning’ of their relationship. Speaking to him by mobile phone as she walked, she put him on loudspeaker so he could be heard telling her: ‘Don’t say anything else.’
Robert Hendy-Freegard (pictured) came into Sandra Clifton’s life in 2012
If it weren’t for her relationship with the convicted conman and ‘accomplished liar’, as one policeman described him, it would be easy to take at face value Sandra’s insistence that she knows all about her partner — who lives in Berkshire in a house believed to have belonged to her late parents, while she lives like a hermit across the Channel.
But her devastated son and daughter — Sophie, 28, and 25-year-old Jake, who feature in the Netflix documentary — suspect their estranged mother is being coercively controlled by Hendy-Freegard, who convinced his previous victims that he was an MI5 agent and their lives were under threat.
If the couple were simply leading their own lives, the siblings point out, why would their mother need to cut off all contact with her family and friends?
Asked in the The Puppet Master ‘What if your mother is happy and Hendy-Freegard is living a new innocent life?’, Jake replies: ‘Why has he done what he has done to us then?’
Sandra’s children’s fears were echoed to the Mail this week by concerned villagers in France, including one who has visited Sandra and says she is ‘not well’.
‘She stays in the dark so I go and see her,’ the villager said, adding that Hendy-Freegard hadn’t been seen visiting Sandra since last July.
‘I’m sure she’s scared of him, thinks he is a secret agent, so doesn’t want to leave,’ the neighbour added.
Her devastated son and daughter — Sophie, 28, and 25-year-old Jake, who feature in the Netflix documentary — suspect their mother is being coercively controlled by Hendy-Freegard
‘She seems to rely on delivery drivers, has no car or identity papers. We don’t know how she eats. It’s serious. We are really concerned for her. Every day I check to see if she’s alive.’
An official from the local mayor’s office responsible for the hamlet where Sandra lives, told the Mail this week that villagers had tried to help her but had been rebuffed.
‘When we speak to Sandra about anything, she calls a man. She doesn’t make any decisions for herself. She’s afraid,’ said the official.
The local gendarmerie also said ‘contact had been made’ with her.
Sandra’s deeply worrying situation bears a chilling similarity to that of Hendy-Freegard’s previous victims — in particular Sarah Smith, who went missing for ten years after he convinced her he was an undercover agent working for the government. He moved her around the country between various ‘safe houses’ that she felt too terrified to leave.
Once he had brainwashed her, separated her from her family, wiped out her identity and become her only protector, she was entirely at his mercy. She also handed over her life savings of £180,000.
Hendy-Freegard’s other victims, stretching back to 1993, included a solicitor, a psychologist, a company director and a civil servant.
Several of them went into hiding, handing over their savings to him for ‘safe keeping’ after believing they were IRA targets because they knew him.
His only male victim was beaten regularly to ‘toughen him up’, supposedly while training to be a secret agent.
Freegard took sadistic pleasure in humiliating his lovers and making them carry out increasingly bizarre tasks, which he told them were tests set by his ‘spymasters’.
One was ordered to survive on rations of one Mars bar a week. Another had to walk 110 miles for a non-existent meeting with an ‘MI5 contact’, while a third had to wait at a motorway service station for weeks with only a few pounds to live on.
Jake, then 16, left home to live with his father after Hendy-Freegard insinuated he was gay and had stolen jewellery — and went on to lock him out of the house
They were also ordered to take menial jobs — Sarah Smith quit university and worked at a chip shop, where she was so hungry as a result of Hendy-Freegard’s strictures that she ate raw batter.
While they were forced to give their wages straight to Hendy-Freegard, he lived a James Bond fantasy lifestyle, staying in top hotels, enjoying luxury holidays, driving flash cars and buying Rolex watches and handmade clothes from Savile Row.
Hendy-Freegard was finally arrested in 2003 in a joint £2.5 million operation with the FBI, after his final victim, solicitor Caroline Cowper, went to police after losing £50,000 in savings and discovering the existence of his other victims.
By then, some of them were so in his thrall that they believed the police were either IRA assassins or MI5 agents, sent to test their resilience.
In 2005, Hendy-Freegard was jailed for life for two counts of kidnap by fraud, ten counts of theft and eight of obtaining money by deception.
But during an appeal hearing two years later, in 2007, the two kidnapping convictions were overturned as ‘unsafe’ on the grounds that the victims had not been deprived of their physical liberty. The new verdict was described as ‘tragedy’ by one victim. Coercive control became a crime in the UK only in 2015.
But back to the story of divorcee Sandra Clifton who met Hendy-Freegard via a dating app in 2012, three years after his release from prison.
Calling himself David Hendy, he told her he sold advertising space, although, according to her then teenage children, he never appeared to go to work. The former car salesman swiftly wormed his way into her life, buying her a flashy car and taking the family on holiday to Spain.
Jake, then 16, left home to live with his father after Hendy-Freegard insinuated he was gay and had stolen jewellery — and went on to lock him out of the house.
For a time, Sophie was estranged from both her brother and her father, saying she was brainwashed into believing her father was destructive, her brother had ‘made his choice’ and contact was not good for her
For a time, Sophie was estranged from both her brother and her father, saying she was brainwashed into believing her father was destructive, her brother had ‘made his choice’ and contact was not good for her.
In an interview with The Times in January, she said that it was only after leaving home, and thanks to the influence of a friend, that she was eventually reunited with her brother and father.
‘I’d been totally brainwashed. Every day, David [Hendy-Freegard] would say: “You don’t ever want to speak to your dad again, do you?” Again and again and again. It was like a drill.’
By 2014, her mother, Sandra, had vanished. The following year, after her ex-husband and children had voiced their concerns, police made contact. But despite them telling her that her partner was a conman, she dismissed their inquiries, saying she was perfectly happy.
According to son Jake: ‘The police don’t technically have any grounds to say or do anything because as far as they are aware she is happy and healthy. Sadly, the law doesn’t do a lot for people like my mum.’
In the years that have passed since, Sandra didn’t attend her parents’ funerals, despite the fact she was an only child and, by all accounts, had been much loved.
And when, in 2020, Jake tried to get the house she inherited from them put into trust to ensure Hendy-Freegard didn’t get his hands on the proceeds, his mother challenged him in court and accused him of theft. Sandra won the case.
In February, just after the Netflix documentary was released, the siblings made an emotional TV plea to find their mother on Good Morning Britain, revealing they hadn’t had in-person contact with her in ‘seven or eight years’, instead speaking to her only via phonecalls they believe were controlled by Hendy-Freegard.
When contacted by the Mail this week about their mother’s whereabouts, Jake and Sophie released a joint statement saying: ‘We love our mother very much. We are pleased her neighbours are looking out for her and hope she is safe and well.’
As for Hendy-Freegard, he has used several aliases since his release from prison, most recently going by the name of David Clifton and appearing at Crufts in 2015 with pedigree beagles called Watson and Holmes.
Hendy-Freegard’s other victims, stretching back to 1993, included a solicitor, a psychologist, a company director and a civil servant
The Mail contacted Hendy-Freegard this week, offering him the chance to put his side of this disturbing story.
What followed was an aggressive, rambling email in which he questioned the integrity of Sandra’s children and the Mail reporter who visited her in France.
Apparently oblivious to his own past, and to the Netflix documentary about him, he warned the Mail to ‘think very carefully about printing an article that just isn’t true’, before sending a grainy picture of our reporter, taken on Sandra’s phone outside her house in France, in a seemingly veiled threat.
For TV viewers, Hendy-Freegard’s life story is undoubtedly a gripping subject. He will also be the subject of a biopic movie starring James Norton and Gemma Arterton.
It is not hard to see why film-makers are keen to place the conman centre stage. For Jake and Sophie Clifton, however, their mother’s disappearance and, now, her apparent reluctance to reunite with them is an ongoing hell.
In January this year, one of Hendy-Freegard’s first victims, Sarah Smith, told how she had recently met with Sandra’s children and had tried to explain how she had been controlled by Freegard, so they wouldn’t blame their mother for her ‘strange and unfair behaviour’.
‘My hope is that at some point Sandra is brought to reality, as I was,’ said Smith. ‘I want her to be delivered back to the arms of her loving children, but I fear they will need to be patient because this may take time.’
Additional reporting: Susie Coen