Netflix’s latest documentary, The Puppet Master: Hunting The Ultimate Conman, explores the wild story of the world’s “ultimate conman”. But what’s the story behind this new true crime series?
If you’ve flicked through Netflix in the last couple of days, you’ll have likely seen the new docuseries taking the streaming platform by storm. The Puppet Master: Hunting The Ultimate Conman contains everything we love in a good documentary – tension, twists and true crime.
The new series is based on the very real life case of Robert Hendy-Freegard, a 51-year-old British man who masqueraded as an MI5 agent in order to control his victims.
In 2005, Hendy-Freegard – who also goes by David Hendy – was convicted of 10 counts of theft, eight counts of obtaining money by deception and two convictions for kidnap by fraud. He was given two life sentences to run concurrently but his life sentences for kidnap were quashed by the court of appeal, leading to his release in 2009.
The Puppet Master centres on siblings Sophie and Jake Clifton as they struggle to come to terms with what they think is currently happening to their mother, Sandra. The siblings believe that Hendy-Freegard is currently coercively controlling their mother, who he met on a dating site and moved in with in 2012.
The siblings have had no contact with their mother, who has since disappeared with Hendy-Freegard.
“It doesn’t matter what we’ve been through, we still love you and we want you back in our lives,” Jake Clifton says in The Puppet Master, in the hope that his missing mother will see the Netflix series and finally make contact.
The man at the centre of it all is Hendy-Freegard, who has strongly denied any claims of coercion. But where and how did the cons start?
The Derbyshire-born conman was born in 1971 and after stints as a car salesman and a barman, he began to befriend regulars in the pub he worked at by regaling them with many different stories.
Through his jobs, his cons began as he started to tell the people he met that he was working for MI5. He used the height of the IRA attacks to his own advantage and told victims that they were involved in attacks, and demanded that they went into hiding and give him their money.
The shocking series focuses on John Atkinson, thought to be Hendy-Freegard’s first ever victim, who befriended the conman in 1993. Playing on the IRA fears of the time, he told Atkinson he was an undercover MI5 agent.
He instructed Atkinson and his two friends, Maria Hendy and Sarah Smith, to go “on the run” with him as they were all in grave danger. It was a witness protection programme, he told them, and one that meant the three friends – all agriculture students of the Harper Adams Agricultural College who Hendy-Freegard met at the pub – had to leave urgently, have no contact with friends or family and, of course, provide money as the programme was not cheap.
Over the course of a decade, Atkinson’s family handed over almost £400,000 for witness protection and Smith paid out her entire six-figure inheritance.
Hendy-Freegard continued to lie and deceive by telling them that their families were in grave danger if they didn’t obey but also abused and controlled them – making them live in constant fear of ever trying to escape. For 10 years, he took Atkinson, Smith and Hendy from “safe house” to “safe house”. He also begun a relationship with Hendy, had two children with her and added her surname on to his.
There were no limits to Hendy-Freegard’s plots to manipulate and the Netflix docuseries takes you through all the wild twists and turns of this true crime case. While his whereabouts (and Sandra Clifton’s) and currently unknown, one thing’s for certain – this series will be one you’ll be left thinking about long after you finish watching.
The Puppet Master: Hunting The Ultimate Conman is available to stream on Netflix now.