Fake news? Story about British 'model' allegedly kidnapped in Italy unravels (UPDATES)

© Polizia Di Stato / Reuters
A person taking part in a reenactment by Italian police shows how a kidnapped British model was kept in a bag, in this handout picture provided by the Italian Police in Milan on August 5, 2017.

A Polish man has been arrested in Italy for kidnapping a 20-year-old British model for a $300,000 ransom. He threatened to otherwise sell her off to the highest bidder on the dark web should the money not be paid. The victim was drugged and kept handcuffed in an isolated hut outside Turin.

Italian State Police (Polizia di Stato) announced Saturday that they arrested Lukasz Pawel Herba, 30, a Polish citizen with a British residency permit, and charged him with "kidnapping for extortion purposes" of a British model who was lured into a fake photo shoot.

The unnamed 20-year-old victim arrived in the Lombardy capital on July 10 to participate in a photo shoot that was arranged through her agent. As soon as she entered the apartment located on Via Carlo Bianconi she was attacked by two men.

Herba and another unnamed accomplice drugged the victim with the horse tranquiliser ketamine, Italian media reported. The woman was then stripped and photographed. The attackers then stuffed their unconscious victim in a travel bag and drove her to an isolated hut outside Turin.

"The model was kept handcuffed to a bedroom wooden chest... until the morning of July 17, when she was released and accompanied to the British consulate in Milan," police said in a statement.

The victim was released after the kidnappers allegedly found out that she had a 2-year-old child and agreed to reduce the ransom to $50,000. They reportedly claimed that selling off mothers in the sex trade contradicted their 'code of ethics.'

The captors also threatened to kill her if she made the kidnapping public.

After being released, the victim reportedly told Corriere Della Sera that she was just one victim of a massive crime network. One of the captors revealed that "he alone had earned over 15 million euros in the last 5 years" through kidnapping and selling women, the model said.

"He explained that all the girls are destined for the Arab countries, and that when the buyer gets tired of the girl bought at the auction, he can give her to other people, and when he is no longer interested, she is served as a 'tiger meal'," the victim allegedly revealed.

The kidnappers initially tried to extort $300,000 in cryptocurrency from her agent for her safe release, otherwise threatening to sell the model through an online auction "to the best bidder on deep web pornographic sites."

"During the kidnapping, the abductor, using encrypted accounts, asked the model's agent a $300,000 redemption to stop the auction," police said.

Authorities said the group might be linked to the 'Black Death Group', an organization which operates on the deep web as agents for several illegal traffickers. The group has previously come under Europol's spotlight.

"Europol found traces of this group on the 'dark web' a couple of years ago," the chief of the Milan branch of Italy's state police, Lorenzo Bucossi, told the Daily Telegraph. "We don't know if the accused is linked to an organization or created his own version of Black Death."

"We can say the accused was about to create an auction online," Bucossi added. "We have evidence he had contact with people who have kidnapped women in the past." Further investigations are ongoing in Poland and the United Kingdom.

Comment: This story could indeed be more or less as told - Lord knows it wouldn't be the first time such horrors have happened - but there also appears to be something fishy about it.

For starters, it's highly unlikely 'the goods' would suddenly be freed because a perpetrator suddenly had a pang of conscience when he discovered that she was a mother.

Secondly, such a well-fleshed-out package of information - complete with the victim's promo shoots - does not typically emerge right at the outset. The overall picture usually takes time to emerge as details trickle out, and there is usually pushback and 'smoke' because such organized crime activity as human trafficking is often just a connection or two away from implicating people in networks of power and influence.

Today, a further odd detail has emerged; at some point during her 6 days held hostage tied naked to a radiator, the model's captors apparently took her shoe-shopping. It has also emerged that the alleged victim and her captor-turned-liberator were previously acquainted...

A close friend of Ayling told the Daily Mail that the pair had met when she was in Paris for a photoshoot before Herba called her agency and booked the job in Milan.

"During the kidnapping, Chloe lost her shoes. He took her to buy some new ones during her ordeal."

Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that when the model was questioned about the shoe shopping trip, she cried.

Ayling's lawyer, Francesco Peschi, told the BBC that she had been acting under duress when she was taken shopping by her captor.

"She was told that people were there watching her and were ready to kill her if she tried anything," Peschi said.

"So she thought that the best idea was to go along with it and be nice to her captor, because he told her he wanted to release her somehow and some time."

Ayling, who is now back at her home in Coulsdon, south London, told reporters outside her home on Monday: "I've been through a terrifying experience. I feared for my life second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour.

"I'm incredibly grateful for the Italian and UK authorities for all they have done to secure my safe release. I have just arrived home after four weeks of being in Italy and I haven't had the time to gather my thoughts.

"I'm not at liberty to say anything further until I have been debriefed by the UK police."

It's all very plausible, but we'll have to wait and see before assessing the validity of the basic claim.

Update Aug 8

Ayling's agent reportedly said it's "hard" for her to give an answer to whether or not she has any doubts about the kidnapping story. But she has confirmed that Ayling did a topless photoshoot today, speculating that perhaps that is her way of "coping with the trauma":

Asked on This Morning whether she had any doubts about the story, her agent, Carla Bellucci, said: "I mean, that is so hard. I've only spoken to Chloe briefly. Um, that is such a hard one."

She went on to describe her as a "beautiful girl... just a little naive." She added that "like everybody, they go into this industry wanting to be famous. I think she was willing to go all the way, which obviously, she wants to be known which is fine."

In a separate interview with BBC Derbyshire, Bellucci said she understood Ayling was doing a Page 3 photoshoot on Tuesday.

"For me, I wouldn't - I think that would be the last thing on my mind," Bellucci added.

She said she had spoken to Ayling on Sunday and discussed meeting up, but she believed she couldn't do so today due to the photoshoot.

"She has her reasons, and maybe it's her way of dealing what's happened to her - to get back out there, maybe it's her way of coping."

Ayling had "always wanted to be a glamor model" and that hasn't changed, Bellucci said.

Ayling's lawyer, Francesco Pesce, said he believes she is telling the truth and that the authorities have satisfied themselves about any doubts in her story. He said anyone who thinks she is lying is "evil."

"The story is frankly incredible. Why would the captor bring the detainee to the police, to the consulate? However, everything matched out and the story turned out to be true," he told Sky News.

Pesce said Ayling's story had convinced the prosecution, the police, and the judge who had conducted pre-trial hearings enough that proceedings were still ongoing.

"There must be some clarification on some elements, however I believe the investigators will be excellent in doing their job and everything will emerge."

Clearly, the girl has mental health issues and thus every part of her story must be corroborated.

Update Aug 9

So apparently the Polish-British captor, who had originally confessed to the crime by giving himself up and bringing Ayling to a police station... is now saying that he had nothing to do with it (whatever 'it' is exactly):

The chief suspect in the kidnapping of a British model in Milan has denied knowingly taking part in any crime and said his involvement stems from wanting to raise money to treat his leukemia.

Lukasz Pawel Herba told investigators he was hired by a group of Romanians to rent properties around Europe to store garments they were selling. He also said he posed as a photographer and met with Chloe Ayling.

Herba said he was paid £500,000 ($650,000), found out the Romanians intended to kidnap her, and backed out of the plan, the Telegraph reports.

Update Aug 9 (ii)

More details. It's starting to look like fake news...

Yesterday a waiter at the city's Farina Cucina cafe told how he saw Chloe with Herba before they walked into the British consulate.

He said: "She seemed happy and relaxed, they stayed for about two hours.

"They were laughing and joking."

A shopkeeper from whom they bought groceries three or four times also said he thought they were a couple.

Herba claims he was forced into the plot by Romanians.

He also claimed to have £14million in the bank, yet he lived in a rented council flat with his brother.

Herba told an acquaintance of an outlandish scam to steal from American billionaires.

Deputy prosecutor Paolo Storati said he was "a person affected by mythomania" - an abnormal or pathological tendency to exaggerate or tell lies.

And his girlfriend, Natalia, described him as a narcissist who claimed he ran an international business making synthetic chicken feed, that he had land in Scotland and owned a sniper rifle.

During the kidnap, he continued to text Natalia, pretending he was in Texas on business.

He had a business card with a picture of the Grim Reaper and the words "Permanent solution".

Mr Storati said: "He presented himself as a professional killer."

Herba emailed at least two papers to sell the story.

His email was headed: "British model kidnapped by the Russian mafia."

He later confessed he'd lied about the mafia to "attract attention".

On Sunday, Chloe spoke to the media, wearing just a tiny pair of hotpants and a cleavage-revealing vest top, while beaming at the cameras.

She has also ditched her former agent for a celebrity agent.

Yesterday, she leapt on the back of a motorbike as she headed to a topless photoshoot, something even her close friend, Carla Bellucci admitted would be "the last thing on my mind".

Chloe's former partner Conor Keyes claims she has not seen her son, Ashton, since returning to the UK.

He claims he has cared for him for the past year to let Chloe pursue her career.

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