MILAN — An Italian court on Friday convicted a Polish man of kidnapping a 20-year-old British model for ransom in a case that raised the specter of young women being auctioned off online on encrypted websites.
The verdict slammed the door on the defendant’s claims that the victim was in on the scheme with him. Lukasz Herba, the 30-year-old defendant, got a 16-year, nine-month sentence that exceeded the prosecutor’s request.
The lawyer for British model Chloe Ayling, Francesco Pesce, called it “quite an important verdict.” He said he would seek half a million euros ($590,000) in compensation in separate proceedings, while conceding it was unlikely that Herba would be able to pay.
In his closing arguments, prosecutor Paolo Storari had demanded 16 years and eight months in prison for Herba, citing the possibility that Ayling could have died during the July 11-17, 2017 kidnapping. He said the model was drugged with ketamine, which knocked her out, then put inside a canvas bag and transported to a farmhouse, where she was handcuffed to the furniture for at least the first night.
Herba denied guilt throughout the trial, and claimed that Ayling agreed to the scheme to boost her career.
In a declaration that defendants are allowed to have in an Italian court, Herba said he had been in love with Ayling, and they had 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 showed that the two had met on Facebook and had met at least once in person before her pregnancy.
According to prosecutors, Ayling was lured to Milan with the promise of a modeling gig and then drugged when she showed up at a mocked-up photographic studio. She was zipped inside a canvas pack and transported to a secluded farmhouse in neighboring Piedmont. There she was held for six days before Herba released her at the British consulate in Milan. In his initial statement to police, he said he did so out of sympathy for the fact she was a mother.
Ayling told investigators that she never tried to escape, even when she accompanied Herba into a store to buy shoes, because she was terrified, believing his threats that he was part of a bigger criminal gang that had eyes on her constantly.
She said she had been told that she would be auctioned off online since she was not able to come up with 300,000 euros ($355,000) that the criminal “Black Death” group was seeking. She said Herba showed her photos of other girls who were reportedly being sold over the deep web.
But in his shifting story line, Herba also testified previously that he had concocted the alleged criminal group and that his brother was helping him in the scheme agreed to by Ayling.
Italian prosecutors are seeking the brother’s extradition from Britain.
Herba said he didn’t tell police that Ayling was in on the scheme during his initial statements because he believed she would come forward herself and defend him.
During closing arguments, his lawyer, Katia Kolakowska, cited an email she received from a U.S. film producer, who pointed out that Ayling’s story closely matches the plot of a movie titled “By Any Means,” that was released about eight weeks before the 2017 kidnapping.
After the verdict, Kolakowska expressed disappointment that the court did not take into account that Ayling emerged from the ordeal unharmed, which would have limited the sentence to one year to eight years. She said she would appeal.
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 from a young woman without any means.
The prosecutor also cited Herba’s purchase of two ski masks, which Chloe said she saw kidnappers wearing when she was freed from the canvas bag, and a note to his brother telling him to clean the trunk of the car well to make sure that there were no traces of her hair.