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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

The curious case of the glamour model, the fantasist, the Dark Web and the Black Death gang

Chloe Ayling claims she was kidnapped by a criminal gang which was allegedly intent on selling her to the highest bidder on the internet but doubts are emerging

Chloe Ayling speaks to the mieda outside her home in Coulsdon, southern England on  Sunday, August  6, 2017. The 20-year-old model says she was lured to Italy with the promise of a photo shoot, then drugged and kidnapped by a man who advertised her as a sex slave on the criminal "dark web." Her lawyer acknowledges that aspects of the case seem bizarre. Photo RAI via AP
Chloe Ayling speaks to the mieda outside her home in Coulsdon, southern England on Sunday, August 6, 2017. The 20-year-old model says she was lured to Italy with the promise of a photo shoot, then drugged and kidnapped by a man who advertised her as a sex slave on the criminal "dark web." Her lawyer acknowledges that aspects of the case seem bizarre. Photo RAI via AP

Chloe Ayling's ordeal sounds like a tale spawned by nightmares of the evil that lurks online.

A beautiful aspiring model is lured to a foreign country, where she is drugged and kidnapped by two men working for a mysterious crime gang that plans to sell her into sex slavery on the Dark Web. But in classic movie fashion, all ends well when the kidnapper repents and escorts her to safety.

Even the lawyer representing Ms Ayling while the case is under investigation acknowledged that aspects of the case seem bizarre. He said investigators initially had "more than understandable doubts" about the model's story.

"It seems incredible," lawyer Francesco Pesce said. "A man kidnaps, together with others, a girl, and after a week, citing particular reasons, accompanies her inside a consulate ... (and) practically hands her over to police. This at first was doubted also by investigators — but the story later turned out to be true."

Ms Ayling, 20, travelled to Milan on July 11 for what she and her modelling agency say they believed was a genuine photoshoot. Instead, she was allegedly injected with the horse tranquiliser ketamine, stuffed into a bag, taken to an isolated villa outside Turin and held there for six days until her alleged kidnapper, a Polish national living in Britain named Lucasz Pawel Herba, had a change of heart and took her to the British consulate. Criminal charges have now been filed against him in Milan.

But perhaps inevitably, in these days of judgment by social media, doubts about the veracity of the story soon surfaced as both the British and Italian press went haywire over the sensational story.

Did Herba really work for a gang that allegedly sold two teenage virgins on the internet? On Monday, Interpol said they had only one reference on their immense database to Black Death, the criminal organisation Herba supposedly worked for - and even that was not proof that it actually exists.

Herba is reported to have handed his victim a business card for the gang, asking her to publicise them on her release..

Italian police have described the 30-year-old Herba as a “fantasist” and a “dangerous person with traces of mythomania”. He was arrested on July 18, the day after he left Ms Ayling outside the British consulate in Milan and has given inconsistent accounts of what happened. In one version, he told the Italian police that he had leukaemia. Desperate for money to pay for treatment, he was pressed into working for a gang of Romanians in Birmingham.

They gave him money to rent the villa, ostensibly for the storage of clothing. When he arrived at the villa, he was ordered to keep watch on Ms Ayling but the Romanians told him to let her go when they discovered she had a child because abducting a mother was against the rules of his shadowy criminal organization.

Then there was the conduct of Ms Ayling herself. Now safely back at home in Coulsdon, Surrey, southern England, she delivered a curiously emotionless statement outside her home on Tuesday, reading from a piece of paper before cameras from the Italian television channel RAI1 and then posing or photographs with her dog.

"I've been through a terrifying experience, " she said. "I've feared for my life, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, "

But she made no reference to the fact that she went shopping for groceries and shoes with her captors during her ordeal. Mr Pesce said she was too frightened to resist as she feared other members of the Black Death would harm her if she made a dash for freedom.

“Chloe told me that she was very scared and wanted to do everything she could to go along with everything in order to make [her captor] release her. It’s understandable, she was scared. I believe she was being brave, she was with a captor and didn’t know what to do. She stayed calm. And now she is safe and with her family,” Mr Pesce said.

The lawyer said her captors had told Ms Ayling they were putting her up for sale on the internet for more than 230,000 pounds sterling and at the same time demanding a $300,000 ransom from her modelling agency, and throughout many hours of questioning - both by the police and before a judge - her account never wavered.

“There were legitimate doubts [about her story] at the start, which were overcome," Mr Pesce said. “What Chloe told police during 10 hours, it wasn’t easy on her. If the police were convinced [of the story] after that, then I am convinced. Also, what would be his [the abductor’s] motive [to collaborate]? Twenty years in jail?"

She had also taken detectives to the remote farmhouse where she was held.

It was pointed out that Ms Ayling has 203,000 followers on Instagram, but Mr Pesce said suggestions that the kidnapping was an elaborate stunt designed to raise her profile were evil.

“I heard people doubting her and implying that she was somehow involved in this because it was too easy an escape and I really can’t believe that people think that about Chloe Ayling,” Mr Pesce told BBC radio. “She was subjected to a tremendous ordeal and she suffered so much.”

According to a "close friend," Ms Ayling had met Herba months before the kidnap, during a photoshoot in Paris in April.

"He then called her agency and booked her for the photo shoot in Milan. He specifically asked for her. He seemed genuine. He sent previous examples of his work and paid in advance,” the friend said.

In her statement, Ms Ayling confirmed she had indeed met Herba before.

Meanwhile, her modelling agent Phil Green - who formerly represented Spice Girl Geri Halliwell - said the Milan booking was at "a recognized studio in the city center."

Ms Ayling returned to Britain on Sunday, almost thee weeks after she was released from her alleged captivity. Mr Green said she was not allowed to leave Italy until she had given evidence o a pre-trial hearing.

Britain's National Crime Agency said British police are working with Italian authorities and searched a house in central England linked to Herba.The Italian police said they are looking for at least one accomplice.

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