BY COLLEEN BARRY
MILAN (AP) — An Italian court convicted a Polish man Monday of kidnapping a 20-year-old British model for ransom, rejecting the defendant’s claim that the abduction was staged to boost the victim’s career.
The court handed Lukasz Herba a prison sentence of 16 years and nine months — a month longer than prosecutors had requested. Herba denied guilt throughout the trial, even as his story shifted, and left the courtroom in handcuffs without comment.
The lawyer for British model Chloe Ayling, Francesco Pesce, called it “quite an important verdict.” Pesce said Ayling was considering possible civil action in British courts against media outlets that suggested she had lied to become famous.
“There were many cases in which she was publicly shamed about this,” Pesce said.
The six-day kidnapping last July garnered global attention after it emerged that Herba had told Ayling he worked with a group that auctioned off young women on encrypted internet sites. He also claimed international intelligence experience from agencies such as Mossad and CIA.
Beyond the dramatic details — a model lured to Italy’s fashion capital, drugged, zipped in a canvas bag and held for ransom in a secluded farmhouse — omissions in Ayling’s early statements to investigators and her career as a “glamour model” specializing in scantily clad or topless shoots created opportunities for sensationalism.
Defense lawyer Katia Kolakowska expressed disappointment that the court did not take into account that Ayling emerged from the ordeal physically unharmed. Kolakowska said that would have limited the sentence to between one and eight years. She said she would appeal.
In his closing arguments, prosecutor Paolo Storari cited the possibility that Ayling could have died during the July 11-17, 2017 kidnapping in seeking a lengthy prison sentence for Herba. He said the drug, ketamine, combined with her enclosure in the bag and the time she spent in the farm house near Turin chained to furniture, could have caused a fatal reaction.
Criminal defendants are allowed to make declarations in Italian courts. In his, Herba said he had been in love with Ayling and they concocted the kidnap plot to help her overcome financial difficulties after the birth of her son.
“I never hurt the girl. I was not violent with her,” Herba said. “If she felt forced verbally in any way, I am very sorry. But it certainly was not as Chloe has described.”
“I was in love, and I was hoping that once her fame took off that she would repay me with feelings and we would share the money,” he said.
Previous testimony revealed the two first met on Facebook and saw each other in person at least once before her pregnancy.
Herba was arrested when he released Ayling at the British consulate in Milan. In his initial statement to police, he said he let her go out of sympathy for her role as a mother.
Ayling said she never tried to escape — not even when Herba took her into a store to buy shoes — because she was terrified, believing his assertion that he was part of a bigger Romanian criminal gang that had eyes on her constantly.
Ayling said she was told the deep-web “Black Death Group” wanted to sell her at auction for 300,000 euros ($355,000), unless she could come up with the ransom. Trying to establish a bond, Herba also told Ayling he would cover 250,000 euros and she would have to come up with just 50,000 euros.
Herba eventually testified that he concocted the nefarious “Black Death Group” and that his brother — not a Romanian criminal group — helped him with the kidnap logistics. Italian prosecutors are seeking the brother’s extradition from Britain.
Herba said he didn’t tell police that Ayling was in on the deception initially because he believed she would come forward to defend him.
Storari, in his closing arguments, noted that Herba had invested at least 10,000 euros (nearly $11,800) in the kidnapping, taking into account real estate rentals and travel. He said it was unrealistic that Herba would have done so only to get ransom money through a young woman without any means.
The prosecutor also cited Herba’s purchase of two ski masks — Ayling said her kidnappers were wearing them when they freed her from the canvas bag — and the exchange of notes with his brother about cleaning the car trunk well to make sure there were no traces of her hair.
During closing arguments, Herba’s lawyer cited an email she received from a film producer, who pointed out that Ayling’s story closely matched the plot of an American movie titled “By Any Means,” released about eight weeks before the 2017 kidnapping.
Her lawyer, Pesce, dismissed the attempt to discredit his client, saying “there have been films made about every crime in the world.”
Ayling acknowledged that her failure to tell investigators initially that she had accompanied Herba into the store damaged her credibility, but said she had been completely terrified.
In London, Ayling’s current agent Adrian Sington said the verdict was “vindication – her story is true.”
“And it means now she can get on with her life,” Sington said. “It’s hard if you’re being painted in the press as a liar, and now she’s able to say, ‘I know it’s a bizarre story, but it’s a true one.'”
Jill Lawless contributed from London.
An earlier version was corrected to show the conviction happened Monday, not Friday.
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