The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman (2022): Season 1, Episode 1 - They Vanished - full transcript

In 1993, Robert convinces his college friends he's and MI5 agent. Decades later, a man named David exerts and extreme level of control over a family.

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If your mum was here now,

what message would you want
to give to her?

- Like, "Mum, if you're listening…" Or…?
- Yes.

Imagine the camera is your mum.

Mum, if you are watching this,

you should know that,
no matter what happens,

we will always be there for you.

What do you want your mum to do?

I don't know. It's…

It's very hard after…

Seven years? Seven years?



I don't even know.

Do you think Mum would recognize us?

Would we recognize her?

Mum, if you're listening to this
right now,

it doesn't matter what we've been through.

We still love you,
and we want you back in our lives.

The difficult thing is,
this is still going on,

and it's happened before.

And there may be people out there
that he could have done anything to.

The secret MI5 agent

is described as a continuing danger.

He controlled everything
in my life.

He wants her all to himself.

Who is this guy?
What does he want?



He's after the money.

- He wanted sex.
- He's a psychopath.

He lives off of the radar.

- He lives in the shadows.
- It was like chasing a ghost.

He's in the background
pulling her strings.

…nicknamed "The Puppet Master."

This is probably
my favorite one of Mum.

And so many people who have seen it
have gone,

"Wow, you were so blonde
when you were younger,"

and I'm like, "That's my mum."

Growing up, my friends would always say,
"I wish my mum was like yours."

"I wish my mum would sit
and sing in the car with us."

Like, even just on a shopping trip,

she'd be singing all the songs
me and my friends were singing.

Everyone thought she was cool.

Mum was very kind, very caring.

You know, everything she did was for us.

Being with my mum, you know,
I was a mummy's boy.

I love that. Dad looks so young.

Sandra was my first real love.

I met Sandra when I was 14.

We got married at 20,
and then Sophie arrived.

Sadly, as the years went on,
we drifted apart and got divorced,

but remained very, very good friends,

and between us,
we brought the children up.

Mum was so young
when she met Dad, and it didn't work out.

But that didn't mean
it couldn't work with anyone else.

My mum decided to start online dating.

I remember Mum showing me her profile
and her pictures.

And you're just sort of thinking,
"This is… This is an advertisement."

"We have a new job
if you'd like to take it."

"Someone to love my mum
and also maybe us."

Mum had a few boyfriends here and there,
you know.

None of them were the right ones for her.

But one night,
there was a phone call.

Then it became a thing.

"Oh, it's this guy I'm chatting to.
His name's David."

He worked in the media,

and he sold advertising space
to large companies.

David loved cars.

He loved expensive things.

Mum had never had a new car.

My first impression
of this brand-new blue Audi was "swanky."

It was so exciting for her
to be able to say she had this.

And she was getting it in a custom color.

It felt like she finally was getting
something she deserved.

David had planned for us
to all go to Spain.

So, I was very excited,
because I had been on holiday before,

but I'd never sort of been to Spain.

The beginning of the trip
seemed normal.

We checked into all the hotels
we were supposed to.

But after that, we were in the car
all night and all day,

hardly stopping.

Only David drove.

Listening to Duran Duran the whole way.

When we were going through
having our passports checked,

David was behaving so strange.

He didn't want us to see his passport.

I asked him for his second name,

and he said,
"Oh yeah, don't worry about that."

And I was sort of like,
"What? Why are you hiding your last name?"

You know, "What's the deal there?"

I had no idea what was going on.
I just knew it was strange.

It got to the stage
where David was always staying over,

and then he just never left.

The more we saw him,
the more he became part of our lives.

He often hinted
at the amount of money he had.

And he was always telling my mum
about the things that he could buy her.

He said that, you know, he's a busy man,
that he had this job,

but he was always at my house.

I never saw him go off to work.

It seemed more like he was unemployed.

To me, it just didn't seem quite right.

If I knew then what I know now,
who David really was…

…then there's no way
he would have continued

to be around my family and my children.

So, um, what's your name?

Uh, my name is John Atkinson.

So we're just gonna talk
about the time period

- before all of this happened.
- Okay.

When you're at university,
the first time you met this guy,

and your whole life changed.

I was a student at the top
agricultural college in England.

But it was a horrible time.

In the early '90s,
the whole nation was kind of wary,

uh, of the fact

that the Irish Republican Army
had declared war.

The bomb,
100 pounds of explosives,

had been packed into a van
parked in a narrow side street.

The Irish Republican Army
is taking credit for today's mortar attack

that landed
in the British prime minister's backyard.

Caught in a storm
of flying glass and debris,

the shocked and bewildered victims
were taken to St. John's...

Today, the IRA warned
that this weekend's attacks

would be followed by more bombings

as long as the British government
continued to occupy part of Ireland.

Among us were terrorists
who were planting bombs

to disrupt our way of life.

There was a large Irish population
at the college,

and the college was under
some sort of surveillance or suspicion

because a student was gunrunning
for the IRA.

The 20-year-old student
from the Harper Adams Agricultural College

had been stopped by the police.

They found two Kalashnikov rifles,
100 rounds of ammunition,

and traces of five different types
of explosives in his car.

It seemed a bit surreal

that this terrorist
had been found in our midst.

After that, completely out of the blue,
one of my Irish friends committed suicide.

Why on earth
would such a great guy, uh, do that?

- I went to the pub.
- …of the IRA.

I was talking
to the new barman, Rob.

I'd got to know him
in the last few weeks.

I told Rob about my friend's death,

and he said,

"You really think
your friend committed suicide?"

"Your friend didn't commit suicide.
The IRA shot him."

"He saw something he shouldn't have."

"Well, what did my friend see?"

He said, "You know
how to make a bomb, don't you?"

I was like, "Um, not really, no."

"The main ingredients
are fertilizer and diesel."

"Where do you get fertilizer and diesel?"

"They're both used on farms."

"The student here that was running guns,
do you think he was acting alone?"

"These people work in cells,
and there's still a cell to find."

Of course, I asked,
"Well, how do you know this?"

"I'm not who you think I am.
This is all just a cover."

"I'm an MI5 agent."

Rob said what they need is somebody
in the college

to help expose this… this IRA cell.

"We've seen your record, and it's clean.
We're gonna use you."

There was a bit of me that was excited.

The idea of taking some terrorists
off the street?

Sure. I'm… I'm all in favor of that.

He said, "How many fights
have you been in?"

And I said, "I'm not a fighter.
I avoid conflict."

It became apparent
that, uh, I needed some training.

Rob showed me how to jab.

As well as training me to throw a punch,

Rob trained me to take a punch.

"You need to be able to take it
from whichever angle it comes from."

I can't remember
how many times he punched me.

And I had a small sense of relief
that I'd taken it,

that I was passing the test.

I was tasked with writing down
the number plates of all the cars

in one particular part of campus,
closest to the nitrogen-fertilizer store.

And then Rob had me write down a list
of names of people I was suspicious of,

who had access to fertilizer.

My housemate, Jim, was on that list.

Rob and his bosses suspected Jim.

"Jim's one of them."

The idea that Jim was involved
with the IRA

was shocking and hard to believe,
definitely,

but not beyond belief.

Me and Jim lived in the same house
as Maria and Sarah.

Sarah was my girlfriend.

Rob said his bosses were telling him

it was not safe
for us to be there anymore.

"We're in grave danger,
and we need to go now."

"Not just me and you,
but the girls as well."

So, I said, "Are you gonna tell the girls
as much as I know?"

"No, it's too dangerous.
They could put the operation in jeopardy."

"How on earth
are you gonna get the girls to go then?"

"You're going to have to lie to them
to save their lives."

Maria and I were summoned to the pub
because he needed to tell us something.

And he sat us down,

and said that he'd got cancer
and that it was terminal.

The thought of him dying,
yes, it was very, very sad.

Not only was he my boyfriend
at that point, but he was also a friend.

They were devastated.

Sarah, particularly.

And I had that sickening feeling

of having just told
the most disgusting lie.

It's definitely the worst thing
I've done in my entire life.

I told them that I had a bucket list.

To go around the country and see things
that I wouldn't have a chance to see.

Your boyfriend says
that he is dying of cancer.

You say, "Is there no treatment?"

"Absolutely no treatment."
"Are you sure there's nothing?"

You know, you go into all the what-ifs
and everything else.

But at the end of the day, if he says,
"I only have a few weeks to live…"

would you say no?

I absolutely despise Duran Duran.

Rob played "Ordinary World" nonstop.

It would finish.

He'd play it again. It would finish.

He'd play it again, all the way.

If I hear a couple of bars of that,

I'm back where I was
at that point in time.

Myself, John, Rob, and Maria
were traveling from town to town

all across the UK.

Whenever we tried to take a photograph
with Rob in it,

he'd always take the photos to make sure
that he wasn't visible in the photograph.

There was a degree of fun to traveling
around the country with your friends.

But there's always something
in back of your mind going,

"Well, but he's dying."

The lies were awful.

At the end of the day, they were justified
because people's lives were at risk.

A gunman is being hunted after
a policeman was shot and seriously injured

last night in Cheshire.

Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch…

We were ten days into our trip

when Rob told us that we weren't able
to go back to college.

It was something a whole lot more serious.

He allowed me to tell them
that I wasn't dying of cancer.

I was told it was all a lie.

Rob said that, "You have to stay here

because you're involved in something

that's gonna put
you and your family in danger."

Sarah was not happy at the situation.

"Can you prove you work for MI5?
Can you prove that we can't go home?"

"Why can't we go home?"
I asked them numerous times.

But he knew how much I had
in my bank account at the time,

where there were various bits
of family land.

Rob said he had that information
because he worked for the government.

We just needed to follow instructions.

When I got back into the car…

looking back, it was a momentous decision

because it was completely pivotal
to what happened.

That decision changed
the next ten years of my life.

My relationship with Sandra
was changing

once David was involved in her life.

Sandra became distant with me.

If I called, she wouldn't always answer.
She wouldn't return text messages.

It just seemed very odd
and very strange to me.

Mum wasn't going out anymore
and seeing her friends.

She only spoke to David.

We weren't having family time.

We were all living very separate lives.

She would get
more and more angry with us.

She was distancing herself from us.

And we're her kids.

Like, I just felt that I didn't know
who she was becoming.

David had brought my mum
a bracelet.

Then one day, my mum comes running at me,
screaming.

David sort of stood behind her.
She was like, "You've stolen my bracelet."

And I was just like, "I'm your son, Mum.
I would never steal from you."

We're a close family.
We trusted each other.

And now, suddenly, her own son,
she can't trust in her house.

That was just the start.

David told my dad, "Your son's gay.
Your son's gay. He's not told you."

My dad pulled me aside and asked me.
"If you wanna be gay, that's fine."

And I said, "Dad, that's not who I am.
I… You know, I'm not."

You don't tell someone
that they're something,

and that's what David was doing.

It upset Mum. It upset Dad. It upset Jake.

My mum bought me a smart pair of shoes
to wear to school…

and I went through the heels
a bit too quickly.

So David said,
"Don't worry. I'll sort it."

Came back, and it had a massive metal lump
on the back.

And I said to them,
"What's this all about?"

They were like, "Until you learn
to walk properly, you need to have this."

So I wore them to school.

People's eyes
were diverting towards me.

And being at that age,
you do feel self-conscious.

He knew that putting that on the bottom
of my shoe would make my life a misery.

So, I felt like I was being controlled.

I came back from school.

Realized they had locked me outside.

The first couple of times this happened,

I would stay out and come back later.

It happened…

…one too many times.

He's banging on the door.
He's been locked out of the house.

It's not a mistake. It's quite deliberate.

I started shouting, "Is anyone in?"

David told my mum, "Don't answer it."

I went to the back door.

I just let out a fit of rage.

I hear a loud bang.

I looked up,
and I saw my sister there, panicking.

She had never seen me like this before,
beating down a door.

I told her, "Let me in.
I'm getting my stuff and going."

And she's crying.
She was saying, "You can't go."

And I was just saying,
"Sophie, I need to go."

It wasn't until my head started clearing

that I realized all of it started
when David came in.

"Why is this happening?
Why would someone want to do this?"

"Who is this guy? What does he want?"

Rob was saying the IRA were following us
and that we had to keep moving.

Today, Warrington city center
was the target of IRA terrorism…

Two days after we left Warrington,

there was two bombs
in the middle of the city.

We needed to be off-grid
and to not be traceable.

For me, the worst thing
was not being able to be in contact

with my family and friends.

That really troubled me.

I knew they would worry

because, obviously, nobody's got
mobile phones at this point in time.

We hadn't heard from Sarah
for a while, which was out of character.

So, I phoned up Sarah's college.

They said, "She's not there,
and we don't know why."

When she was at college,
she worked on a farm.

And the farmer was concerned
as to what had happened to Sarah

because her car had been left,
dumped with them.

And then, of course,
you immediately start getting worried

as to what's going on.

I was inclined to call the police
when the phone rang.

It was Sarah.

It was a relief to hear from her,
but she'd sounded a little off.

"Dad, we'd like to call in
and just see you. There's four of us."

My father was asking questions
about my disappearance.

MI5 was concerned about my father
talking to the wrong person

and potentially giving information
to the IRA unknowingly.

And so, Rob said we needed to visit
my parents to allay their fears.

They arrived at midnight.

This was out of character.

That was the first time we met Rob.

Rob was confident? Yes.
You might say he was cocky.

Rob had been very, very specific
that we had to stick to this cover story.

Sarah was not very forthcoming.

Again, that was not like her at all.

I told them
that I had liver cancer,

and that I had this idea
of going on a holiday

with my… my last few weeks.

Well, I'm a farmer.

If you've got a herd of cattle,
you pick out the one that's ill

by the way they're walking
or by the way they behave.

It shows.

Well, it didn't show with him.

Mr. Smith came out with a question for me.

"How ill are you?"

I just kind of froze and started shaking.

The whole body shook.

I mean, it was as if he was really scared.

I was perhaps a little on edge

and didn't altogether believe
what I was being told.

They knew something wasn't right.

And so, Rob lied to my parents.

He said, "Don't worry about it."

We were going back to college
in two weeks' time.

After that,
they left fairly quickly.

Yeah, you hug… hug your family goodbye,

and I didn't know
when I was gonna see them again.

Knowing that things weren't right,
I should have blocked them.

Not let them go.

I've regretted ever since
that I didn't hold them back.

We waited for several weeks.

Sarah didn't return to college.

And at that point,
you know you have to do something.

I paid her credit card.

You could see that if she bought something
in Cheltenham, she'd been in Cheltenham.

That gave me an idea.

I was able to trace where they'd been.

Where they went and the date
was all plotted on the wall map.

We knew
they'd been all over the country,

and likely to go to the south,

the same day, go right up to the north
and then back again.

And there's no great sense in it.

I would go through the statements
and see the biggest lumps that were paid

or the ones that looked interesting.

She bought a suit for the man
that was with them.

They stayed at a hotel
and left in a hurry.

I felt Sarah was spending too much money.

She always looked after money,

and she would never go
and spend it wildly at all.

We were feeling unsettled
about what was going on.

But then Sarah called.

She said…

"I've got to postpone my graduation
for a year,

because I'm no longer interested
in farming."

"Commercial Union, an insurance firm,

have offered me a place
on their graduate traineeship,

paying £25,000 a year."

When she said
she wasn't going back to college,

we then knew
that things had gone out of hand.

I phoned Commercial Union,
and there were no jobs like that on offer.

The figure was far more
than they would pay

for an untrained person.

This was a total put-up.

None of this was normal.

Sarah didn't tell lies.

I was living at the house
with Mum and David.

I felt like my mum
was a completely different person.

Jake had already left
and was living with Dad,

and I wasn't speaking to either of them.

I felt abandoned.

And the only guidance
that I was receiving was from David.

I remember David saying
my dad had let my mum down,

things my dad had done to my mum
in the past,

things about their marriage,
things about their divorce.

The progression was very subtle
and gradual.

David told me, "You never wanna see
your dad again, do you?"

"You don't wanna speak to your dad again,
do you?"

"You don't wanna speak to your dad again.
You don't wanna see your dad, do you?"

"You don't. You don't. You… don't."

"You don't ever wanna see your dad again,
do you?"

Every day. Multiple times a day.

And then, eventually,
I started disassociating from the name.

Mark Clifton was the name of a stranger,
not of my dad.

He was a scary figure
who would hurt me and my family.

I wrote to Sophie many times.
Texted her many times.

Told her how much I loved her,
how much I missed her.

Tried to, um, get things back
to the way they were.

Every time I got a letter,
I put it in the same envelope,

and on this envelope had the title,
"Lies and Slander from Mr. Mark Clifton."

And it was pinned up on my old pinboard.

I didn't speak to my dad
for two and a half years.

It became very evident
that David was behind a lot of this,

but I couldn't work out why.

I just thought,
"What is going on here? Who is this guy?"

I tried doing some local research on him,
looking on the internet.

I knew him under the name of David Hendy.

I looked in local directories
and local searches.

Couldn't find anything on him.

He was like a ghost.

I'd phoned the police.

They said Sarah was over 18.

She was a free woman
to make her own decisions.

"Why are you wasting police time?"

I had to find her myself.

I knew Sarah was missing.

I knew she was probably with Robert.

But where?

It was a question of going through
all the places they could have stayed at.

But you're following a trail,
which may be cold.

You might have 100 different places,

and you check each one
to see if they've stayed there.

"Hello. This is Peter Smith speaking."

- "Hello?"
- Hello? Good morning.

- "Please, can you help me?"
- Can you help me?

"I'm looking for my daughter."

Her name is Sarah.

"Good morning. I'm Sarah's father."

My name's Peter Smith.

"I'm looking for information.
Can you help me?"

- I've got a problem.
- "I'm trying to trace what's happened."

"My daughter's gone missing."

Missing. Missing.
Missing. Missing.

When we arrived at the safe house,
everybody was tense, Rob especially.

Rob had found out that Sarah's dad
was trying to track us down.

One track leads to another,
leads to another, leads to another.

A farmhouse, a room to let, whatever.

Rob sent me out looking for cars.

I needed to log what cars
were parked in certain places

so his superiors could run checks
on number plates.

You've got to work through
stage by stage.

And if you plod
through each stage carefully,

eventually you get a break.

Sarah was sighted
coming out of a house in Peterborough.

So I said, "Well,

what's the address of the house?"

I don't call out.
I don't make a lot of noise.

The last thing I want to do
is to alert them that I'm looking for them

because they might run.

How do you get into a house
that is locked?

You walk around the back
and you look for a hole.

If you can't find a hole,
you have to make one.

You don't stay totally within the law

when you are trying to find things out.

Otherwise, you don't get very far.

The Peterborough house was totally empty,

except for one room where there was
John's and Sarah's belongings.

It looks as if their stuff
had been just put there,

and then, "We've gotta move."

I picked up one note amongst the papers.

"Listen, I've got some really good news
for you."

"Commercial Union, an insurance company…"

"…have offered me a place
on their graduate traineeship,

paying £25,000 a year."

That was a sledgehammer blow.

It was what she had told me
over the phone, word for word.

Sarah had been scripted what to say.

At that point, I knew there's got to be
someone that is pulling the strings.

I cannot prove it,
but I'm pretty certain it's Robert.

We ended up in Sheffield
at the new safe house on Dorothy Road.

Rob said the house was bugged

so that MI5 could actually monitor
the security of the building.

I had to change my appearance.

My hair had to be about an inch long,

and it had to be blonde,
as in white-blonde.

Rob gave us
very strict instructions

not to give our real names.

So, I became Jamie.

I was told, "Don't disclose
anything about yourself or your past."

"Don't make any close attachments
with people around."

As a cover, Rob arranged for me
to have a job as a barman.

I worked in a fish-and-chip shop

under the name Betty Smith.

My life consisted of getting up,
getting a bus ticket,

working my six or eight-hour shift,

waiting,

getting driven around
till 12 o'clock at night,

surveillance, sleep, do it all again.

Get up, get my bus ticket,

work the shift,

wait…

Weeks and weeks of stress.

There were five shots,
and the policeman was hit twice.

Three people died in the blast.

Get up, bus ticket…

Constant not knowing what's happening.

…wait for hours, long drive…

Not knowing who's following you,
worrying about what's going on.

Get up…

Here we have death again.

It builds so much
that you're stressed all the time.

Get up, bus ticket.

Casualties were taken
to local hospitals.

Work my shift, wait for hours,

long drive, sleep.

Every day would be the same.

- Wake up in the morning.
- Get up…

David would take me to work.

- I'd work.
- Wait.

Wait. Wait. Wait.

David would pick me up.
I'd go back to sleep.

I'd wake up, and the same repeats.

Again and again.

I was working as a hairdresser,
as an apprentice.

I had to pay £300 of rent every month,

even though I was only earning
just over 400.

Mum started having less and less say.

It started being, "Give the money to me.
I'll give it to your mum."

"I'll take your mum's rent."

I had a savings account
with £10,000 in it.

And when he found that out,
he started laughing.

He was so…

almost proud of himself.

David convinced me
to go into the bank, and lie,

and say I was taking the money out
to buy my first car.

I took the money out.
It was in an envelope. I gave it to David.

And I never heard of it again.

One night after work,
David never came and picked me up.

When I spoke to him on the phone
in the morning,

I said it wasn't right.

I said, "You don't do that to people."

"You don't leave me
in my professional working environment

to sleep on the floor."

I needed to leave for my own health.

I told my mum I was sorry,
I couldn't be there anymore.

After living on my own for a year,

I eventually got back in contact
with Jake and my dad.

I walked into my kitchen,
and Sophie was standing there, and, um…

Yeah. We both hugged and cried.

It's amazing how quick you put things
back behind you when you love somebody.

When I left, I started
to really understand what he was doing.

I think it was to get me out of the way.

He wants her all to himself.

In 2014, two years
after they first started dating,

Mum and David left the house.

Nobody knew where they'd gone.

When Sandra left, I didn't think

that that would be the last time
that me or my children would see her.

I went back into the house
to get the house ready for sale.

I was completely horrified and shocked
to see that, on the master bedroom,

there was a huge,
industrial-sized padlock.

That's the kind of lock you have
on an outside garage or a lockup.

The door would give way
before the lock would.

That is to keep a person in or out
of that room.

There was newspaper,

completely covered the whole window
in its entirety.

So nobody on the outside could see through
what was happening inside this room.

I just think
it's very disturbing and sinister

that you would go to the extremes to,

A, block the inside of the house
from outside,

and, B, put that substantial a lock
inside a house.

I was surprised of the mail
that was at the house.

There was absolutely every single bill
and red letter of final demand

and court summons that you could imagine.

There's so many letters here.

Bills from the electricity company,
from the phone company,

from the local borough council.

Penalty for a parking fine, tax credits,
where they're recovering the money back.

Credit card details, more parking fines.

Here's one about the mortgage company.

So the mortgage hadn't been paid
for many, many months.

Wow.

Sandra didn't have an overdraft
or credit card before she knew him.

So, this sad state of financial affairs,

in my opinion,
has been brought on by David.

The car that your mum and David
had been driving.

Finance on the car not paid.

You're talking about a £35,000 car.
It was top-of-the-line.

The car was a present for my mum,
but financed in her name.

Effectively given a car
that she had to pay for.

He always told us
that he was doing very well for himself

and, you know, buying flash cars,
having, you know, expensive watches.

And looking through this,
it was all faked.

I did some more research.

I had already tried looking,
but I looked further and I looked harder.

I still couldn't find anything on him.

Then I just had a brain wave

of just putting the words
"David Hendy conman."

Up came a website describing a man
who went under that name,

but also under the name
of Robert Freegard.

"The conman who stole my life."

"Police branded him evil
and said he was in a class of his own."

"Robert Freegard, 'the Puppet Master, '

as he's soon to be dubbed
by the British tabloids."

"Masquerading as a James Bond-style agent,
Freegard had already scammed

nearly two million dollars in cash
from his victims."

Then I clicked on "images."

Bang. David Hendy is Robert Freegard.

He's the same man.

Utterly shocked. And the crimes
he's carried out are horrific.

This man was around my family
and we didn't know who he was.