During the early 1990s, Robert Freegard befriended three college students in Newport, England. What happened next was a series of bizarre and almost unfathomable series of events that forever changed those students’ lives. Netflix’s ‘The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman’ explores Robert’s conning ways through the eyes of two of the students: John Atkinson and Sarah Smith. So, if you’re wondering what happened to them since, here’s what we know!
Who Are John Atkinson and Sarah Smith?
John and Sarah were agriculture students at the Harper Adams Agricultural College at the time. They were also roommates along with Maria Hendy and another person. During a visit to the local bar, John met Robert, the barkeep. Through the ensuing conversations, Robert told the college student that he was an MI5 agent working to weed out Irish Republican Army sleeper cells on campus. Enthralled by his stories, John agreed to help him.
Robert had asked John to carry out some strange missions. On the show, John talked about how he once had to write down the license plate numbers of all the cars parked close to a fertilizer store because someone was making bombs using the items sold there. Robert also beat John up and asked him to take punches to test his loyalty and toughness. Then, he asked John to start dating Sarah as well.
At one point, Robert convinced John that their lives were in danger and they had to leave immediately. He asked John to lie to Sarah and Maria to get them to safety. As a result, John claimed to have terminal cancer and wanted to visit a list of places before he died. But the trio learned much later they wouldn’t go back at all. Robert eventually moved them to Sheffield, England, along with him. They were told not to contact their families because the phones were bugged.
Robert conned them out of hundreds of pounds to pay for his operations throughout their journey. While he took up a job as a salesman and continued to fraud more people, John worked at a bar, and Sarah was employed at a chip shop. Robert also had two daughters with Maria around that time. Sarah had stated on the show that almost all the money she made would go to Robert for the supposed witness protection program she was in.
Once the former students were separated, John talked of going back to living on his parents’ farm. While he was scared of the IRA coming after him initially, he realized over time that Robert was possibly lying to him. By then, John had given up almost £400,000. Sarah also remembered being taken to a safe house with a bucket over her head. She was ultimately found by the police working as a cleaner at another woman’s home under a different name.
The house where Sarah was working belonged to Renata Kister, another person conned by Robert. He told Renata that Sarah didn’t understand English and, at the same time, told Sarah to pretend as she understood nothing. Eventually, both John and Sarah testified at Robert’s trial in 2005. Later, John said, “He did put me through hell. It was degrading and humiliating. They were very serious things that he was lying about; you do not joke about the IRA. He is just sick.”
Where Are John Atkinson and Sarah Smith Now?
After the trial, John talked about having dealt with the ordeal and believed that he had recovered from it. Regarding Robert, he said, “I have heard him described as a narcissistic sociopath, and that seems to sit pretty well. It is all about himself. He will tell any lie just to get what he wants.” Sarah, who didn’t see her family for close to a decade, later wrote a book about her experiences living on the run.
When Sarah learned Robert would be released from prison after his conviction was overturned, she made her disappointment evident. Sarah said, “He is a very skilled liar and manipulator, and I have no doubt that he will do this again. I hope that when he is released, his path never crosses mine. I never want to see that man again.” As per the show, Sarah has since been happily married and helps her father out on his farm. As for John, he taught English in Prague, Czech Republic.
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