MILAN (AP) — A British model who says she was kidnapped in Italy broke down when investigators confronted her with a witness statement that she had been seen shopping for shoes with an alleged captor, according to court documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
Chloe Ayling initially told Milan police she was held, at times with her hands and feet cuffed to a dresser, at a remote farmhouse for six days and never left the dwelling until one of her kidnappers released her at the British consulate in Milan on July 17.
But on the second day of questioning, detectives presented the 20-year-old with a statement from a saleswoman who said she sold shoes to the model and the main suspect in her abduction the day before Ayling turned up at the consulate, according to Ayling’s court deposition.
In tears, the young woman told investigators she couldn’t give a “reasonable explanation” for why she had omitted the shopping trip, but said she considered the man she accompanied her best chance at freedom.
The arrest of a suspect in Ayling’s abduction and her account of a startling ordeal have garnered international media attention since details about the case emerged over the weekend.
Police released a dramatic narrative about how the woman was allegedly lured to Milan with the promise of a modeling job, then drugged at a supposed photographer’s studio on July 11, zipped inside a canvas bag and transported to a farmhouse near Turin.
The young woman said when she regained consciousness in the trunk of a station wagon, her jeans and sneakers were missing and she was wearing just her pink body suit and gray socks. She said she was told later she had been photographed so she could be auctioned off online, according to her deposition.
Milan police, citing Ayling’s description of the events, said her kidnappers also informed her she had been captured by a criminal group called “Black Death” and that she would be held for ransom or sold on the clandestine “dark web.”
The main suspect, Lukasz Pawel Herba, freed her at the British Consulate in Milan. He has been arrested on charges of kidnapping to extort money and falsifying documents, pending an indictment.
Police said they are looking for as many as four accomplices.
Both Ayling’s Italian lawyer and the talent agent who sent her to Italy lashed out Tuesday at skeptics who have expressed doubts about her story. The lawyer and agent said the incredible details have borne out under prosecutorial and investigatory scrutiny.
“I can assure everybody that it was real and very frightening for all concerned,” agent Phil Green of the Supermodel Agency said.
The lawyer, Francesco Pesce, said his client had been threatened with death throughout the ordeal and decided it was better to cooperate with Herba.
“She did testify that she went with her captor to buy shoes and buy groceries, and this does appear to be strange. I understand this and I will continue to respond to this,” Pesce said. “She was told by this man that there were many people of this ‘Black Death’ organization around her, and even if she tried to flee, she was going to die.”
Ayling is what in Britain is called a “glamour model,” specializing in scantily clad or topless photo shoots. She has appeared in British tabloids and worked around Europe.
She told Italian police she does about four photo sessions a month, often abroad, and had just returned from Dubai when the Milan job was scheduled.
Green said the Milan photo shoot seemed legitimate. The person who made the booking had “a website, previous pictures, details of his studio, details of what the shoot was going to be, times, locations, fee — everything,” he said.
But the day after Ayling was due to return, Green says he received a ransom demand for $300,000.
Ayling told police she first met Herba, a 30-year-old Polish national, briefly when she was brought to Paris for another modeling job, to promote motorcycles, earlier this year and he came to pay her cab fare at the airport.
After his arrest in Milan, Herba told police that he cancelled the Paris job when he realized that a group of three Romanians affiliated with the alleged criminal group intended to kidnap Ayling, his official statement says.
He said he called the model’s hotel, pretending to be the photographer hired to work with her, to say his equipment had been stolen.
Herba, who has British residency and speaks English, provided an account just as detailed as Ayling’s and more incredible.
He told investigators that the Romanians hired him to rent properties around Europe to store garments they intended to sell. He said he was drawn into the kidnapping scheme to raise money to treat his leukemia.
The Milan investigators expressed incredulity at the 500,000 pounds ($649,000) Herba said he was paid to rent the properties. They also said he did not provide the names of doctors or other evidence he illness.
The suspect also claimed he did not participate in Ayling’s kidnapping. He told police he came to her aid when he saw her photos posted with an online auction. He said she was free to go once the Romanians had abandoned the farmhouse, but that she stayed.
Ayling told police that after a couple of days, Herba removed the handcuffs. From that point on they slept in the same double bed, but he did not assault her or demand sex, she said. She said she did not flee because Herba told her members of the group were watching and she feared for her life.
Herba told Ayling that higher-ups in Black Death were upset she had been abducted because she is the mother of a small child, according to court documents.
He also reassured her he would find a way to free her. At one point, he told her he had bid 250,000 euros for her in the dark web auction, the model told investigators, and that she would have to pay another 50,000 euros once she was released.
Her captor also informed her of Black Death’s supposed conditions for her release: publicizing its activities, never speaking ill of the group and getting British police to drop any investigations of it.
Pesce said the reported ordeal had left Ayling traumatized and that she is cooperating fully with police “not only for her case,” but to help if the group has other victims.
“She understands that there is a bigger picture,” he said.
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